What France’s “Spiderman” reveals about your views on immigration

The bar for being a good immigrant is so high that you literally have to leap tall buildings in a single bound to meet it. 

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Awarding Mamadou “Spiderman” Gassama French citizenship for scaling four floors in less than 30 seconds and rescuing a small child was more valuable than any financial reward. The majority of the European population doesn't realise how hard it is for migrants to gain citizenship. Other than in straightforward cases where it is gained by marriage (and even then, it's not easy if you are poor or unemployed), citizenship is a long and frequently impossible goal. Illegal migrants often have no viable route to citizenship and can remain undocumented for years, serving in the ranks of the precariat, working cash-in-hand jobs. If Gassama had been given €1m, he wouldn't have been able to open a bank account to save it in. He also would have been unable to use it for travel of any sort. It is not likely he would have been able to purchase a property, set up a business or even get married. Madamou Gassama was, until shortly after a small child slipped off a balcony, undocumented.

Had Gassama been one of the lucky ones and had a different route to citizenship, the burden of proof that he was suitable to be a citizen would have been high and subjective. In this light, the few seconds Mamadou spent climbing those balconies is dwarfed by the pain of not being a citizen and the effort it takes to become one. Observing this is not to take his heroism away from him. It was a great and awe-inspiring thing to do, but the arbitrary anointment is also a bit medieval. The sovereign (Emmanuel Macron) hears news of a great feat by a common man of the nation and summons him to the palace to be awarded with new threads and a scroll acknowledging his good deed.

I know this is a joyful moment. A life was saved, and another made mercifully easier by a system that actually has designed a citizenship track for those who have “rendered exceptional service to France through his/her talents and abilities’’. But it’s hard not to think about the Russian Roulette of the undocumented. What if it hadn't been filmed? How many of these daily acts of selflessness go unrecorded and unawarded? How many good immigrants have not had the chance to demonstrate their value to the country because they have not saved a life? Other than a sort of X Factor/Hunger Gamestype scenario where migrants get to compete for citizenship by proving their life-saving credentials, it’s down to happenstance. The eyes of the state can't be everywhere, there are practicalities and this is the system. The bar for being a good immigrant is so high that you literally have to leap tall buildings in a single bound to meet it. In a political climate where immigration in Europe is sending millions to the polls to vote for far-right parties, it is hard even for a migrant to do a good deed without it being used to perpetuate the polarisation of the discussion.

The fact that his religion wasn't mentioned enough by French media set off all sorts of unseemly jostling over the fact that if he had done something bad, the fact that he was Muslim would have been the first thing that would have been cited. How desperate are we that out of eagerness to push back against one stereotype, we are pushing for another? The fact that he is Muslim is as irrelevant to his life-saving feat as it would have been to any crime that someone who shared his religious background might have committed. Sometimes the fact that a point can be made doesn’t mean it’s a good point. When another Malian Muslim hid shoppers from an Islamist gunman during an attack on a Jewish supermarket and was also given nationality, the praise refracted through the light of his faith begged the question, was he less likely to help Jews because he was Muslim?

 “They were saved thanks to the Muslim employee of the supermarket,” Albert Guigui, the chief rabbi of Brussels and a relative of one of the hostages said. In the headlines and how he was described, he became just ''Muslim employee'' or, ''Muslim man''.

But it’s all one huge point-scoring exercise now. Those who are anti-immigration can point to Mamadou and claim that they are not against migrants, just the bad ones. Those who are tired of the demonisation of migrants can point to Mamadou as proof that immigrants are good and actually argue for more essentialisation because all his different ways of being An Other were not spelled out. The problem is the trap of the discourse. The narrative is the house, it always wins. Even when people are making a well intentioned effort to praise good immigrants or highlight when they are treated hypocritically, they are still reinforcing the fact that their identity should be relevant at all. It’s like in Fight Club when one of Jack’s saboteur gang dies and the rest of the crew will not mourn him individually because ‘’in Project Mayhem, we have no names’’. In frustration Jack says ‘’this man is a man and he has a name, and it’s Robert Paulson. OK?’’ “I understand’’ one of the gang says and turns to the rest of the crew to declare ‘’In death, a member of Project Mayhem has a name. His name is Robert Paulson’’. They all then start chanting robotically, ‘’His name is Robert Paulson. His name is Robert Paulson’’ while Jack screams at them to shut up.

I am Jack’s profound sense of frustration. His name is Mamadou Gassama. He is not a Muslim, nor a good immigrant, nor a better class of immigrant. He is a man who was leading a tough life that has now been made easier because he was lucky enough to be filmed during an exceptional act of heroism. It’s asking a lot at the moment to hope that one day his identity will be irrelevant, but in the meantime we can all think twice before using it so score political points. 

Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist.