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France's 'Spiderman' Revs Up Debate Over Illegal Immigration


A video of a young man scaling an apartment building in Paris to save a 4-year-old dangling from a balcony went viral last week. The man turned out to be an African migrant without legal status in France. His bravery got him a meeting with the French president, who granted him citizenship and a job. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports the incident has also heated up a debate.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: This week, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo awarded 22-year-old Mamoudou Gassama, who she affectionately called Spiderman, the city's highest medal of honor.


ANNE HIDALGO: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Your heroic act of saving a child has stunned all of us," said Hidalgo. "You're not only a hero of the republic. You are a hero of Paris."


HIDALGO: (Speaking French).


BEARDSLEY: Speaking hesitantly, Gassama thanked the City Hall dignitaries.


MAMOUDOU GASSAMA: (Speaking French).

HIDALGO: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: After all, French is his second language. Gassama arrived in France from Mali eight months ago after crossing five countries and the Mediterranean Sea.


BEARDSLEY: Video of Gassama the superhero climbing to save the child and sitting down with President Emmanuel Macron in the gilded Elysee Palace has captivated France. But not everyone has been so charmed by the story. There are conspiracy theories and racist reactions on social media...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: ...And arguments over who should become French and why. One television commentator drew fire for saying Gassama should have been repatriated, not invited to the Elysee. Another said the incident looked staged. In a Paris neighborhood known as Little Bamako, Malians are proud of Gassama. Baidy Drame (ph), head of a Malian diaspora group, says it's great that he was naturalized and will soon be training as a fireman. But Drame admits Gassama's fortunes stand in stark contrast to the reality of most Malians living illegally in France.

BAIDY DRAME: (Through interpreter) The drastic measures the French government wants to take against those without papers is really worrying, especially for the more than 3,000 Malians who are now on a deportation list.

BEARDSLEY: Drame, who's been in France 30 years, says this is the worst crisis his community has faced. While Gassama was being honored at Town Hall, Paris police were breaking up two makeshift migrant camps in other parts of the city. President Macron's government is set to pass a tough new law on immigration and asylum this summer. Catherine de Wenden, a specialist on immigration, says Macron has drawn criticism from rights groups and may have seen Gassama as a way to improve his image.

CATHERINE DE WENDEN: Thanks to the recognition of the heroism of this young man, he could show another image of himself as the president of the Republic.

BEARDSLEY: Wars and poverty in the Middle East and Africa have pushed more migrants to Europe in the last few years than in previous decades. But Louise Carr, with Amnesty International, says France and the EU easily have the means to manage the situation.

LOUISE CARR: At the moment, we hear a lot about the refugee crisis, the refugee or migrant crisis. But what we're really seeing is it's a crisis among states who are not assuming their responsibilities for protecting refugees. They're always posed as a problem. We forget that these are people, people who are looking to integrate, looking to rebuild their lives. There are so many different ways that they can contribute to societies.

BEARDSLEY: Carr says many had hoped that France under Macron would be exemplary and lead the way in protecting refugee rights. But, she says, his new law actually jeopardizes their safety in the name of efficiency. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.