It took less than a minute of extreme bravery for Mamoudou Gassama, a Malian migrant, to scale the façade of a Paris building and save a four-year-old boy clinging to the edge of a balcony for dear life.
Barely 24 hours later, the 22-year-old’s spectacular fourth-floor rescue earned him an invitation to the Elysée Palace, where President Emmanuel Macron on Monday hailed his “courage and devotion” and offered him French nationality and a job as a fireman.
His feat highlights the quandary facing Paris in dealing humanely with a migrant influx that homeless charities this month warned risked ending in tragedy, after two refugees drowned in canals and a third was stabbed.
France has been transfixed by video footage of the Malian’s exploits, which has been viewed millions of times on social media and turned Mr Gassama into an overnight celebrity with the nickname “Spider-Man”.
The film shows a crowd cheering on Mr Gassama from the street as he pulls himself from balcony to balcony with his bare hands.
With a neighbour in the apartment block in Paris’s multi-ethnic 18th arrondissement unable to reach the boy, Mr Gassama manages to grab the four-year-old, who it appears climbed on to the balcony after being left alone by his father. The crowd goes wild.
“I ran. I crossed the street to save him,” he told Mr Macron at their Elysée meeting. “When I started to climb, it gave me courage to keep climbing.”
God “helped me” too, said Mr Gassama, who said that his legs felt like jelly once the child was safe and sound. “Thank God I saved him.”
According to BFM TV, the boy had fallen from the balcony of his father’s sixth floor flat to the floor below and had somehow managed to cling on until Mr Gassama came to his rescue.
While “Spider-Man” was scaling the building, it transpired that child’s father – who lives alone with his son – was outside playing Pokémon Go on his mobile phone. He now faces a maximum two-year prison term and €30,000 (£26,000) fine for dereliction of parental duty.
In excerpts of their conversation posted on the President’s Facebook page, Mr Macron said: “Bravo. You saved a child. Without you, no one knows what would have become of him. You need courage and the capability to do that.
“This is an exceptional act. We’ll obviously be setting all your papers straight and if you wish it, we will start the process of naturalisation so that you can become French.”
The president said Mr Gassama deserved a “meaningful” job, adding: “What you have done corresponds with what firemen do. If this fits your wishes, you could join the fire brigade so that you can do [such acts] on a daily basis.”
Mr Gassama, who lives in a hostel for migrants in Montreuil, an eastern suburb of Paris, told Mr Macron how he tried to cross the Mediterranean in March 2014 to reach Italy after a long, arduous spell in Libya, but was caught by police and beaten. “But I wasn’t discouraged,” he said.
After crossing at an unspecified date, he was allowed to legally stay in Italy, but decided to join his older brother, who has lived in France for decades.
His red-carpet treatment comes just weeks after Mr Macron enacted an asylum and immigration bill, which migrants’ rights groups criticised as inhumane.
Mr Macron said there was no contradiction between this and rewarding Mr Gassama’s bravery.
Meanwhile, authorities are preparing to evacuate around 2,400 migrants from makeshift encampments in Paris.
There was approval across the political spectrum for Mr Gassama to be granted honorary citizenship. But Nicolas Bay, general secretary of the far-Right Front National party, only supported the move on condition that the government throw out “all illegal immigrants”.
Mr Gassama is due to receive a residency permit on Tuesday and start working as a fireman.
The Paris fire brigade said: “Mamoudou Gassama clearly has the required values to join.”
Despite leaving his four-year-old alone, social services decided to return custody of the boy to the father, said to be “distraught”.
However, an inquiry has been launched.
This is not the first time an undocumented migrant has been hailed a hero in France.
Lassana Bathily, a Malian Muslim, was awarded French citizenship after helping save the lives of several customers during a terrorist hostage drama in a Jewish supermarket in Paris in 2014 in which four people were killed, as well as the assailant.
The 24-year-old shop assistant was in the underground stockroom of the Hyper Casher store when gunman Amédy Coulibaly burst in upstairs, firing from a Kalashnikov. He hid many in a freezer, which he switched off.
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