On 28th May, Mamoudou Gassama, an undocumented immigrant from Mali, rescued a small boy dangling from a balcony in Paris. Video footage of the scene went viral on social media and the video has been viewed millions of times. In 30 seconds, Gassama can be seen scaling four floors to save the boy, becoming a French super-hero in the process. The press quickly dubbed him the “Malian Spiderman”.

Gassama has been granted honorary French citizenship by President Emmanuel Macron as a reward for his act of bravery. This might seem like the happy ending that his bravery deserves, but instead Gassama’s actions have revived a political debate about France’s current immigration policy.

What is French honorary citizenship?

On Monday, Mamoudou Gassama met Emmanuel Macron at the Elysée. The president congratulated the 22-year-old for his courage and told him he would be granted French nationality and a job in the fire brigade: “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.”

Macron’s power to bestow “honorary citizenship” is enshrined in French law. Article 21-19 in the Civil Code states that a foreigner can obtain French nationality through a fast-track procedure if “he has performed exceptional services for France”.

Michel Renard, Professor of History and author of Faut-il avoir honte de l’identité nationale?, explains to Le Figaro that it is actually a common thing to bestow  French nationality under such circumstances: “Being granted French nationality as a reward or as an honour is not new.”

When giving the French nationality becomes an symbolic act

Looking back at French History, the idea of an honorary citizen has existed since the early days of the French Revolution. A foreigner could be fully French if he or she respected the Revolution’s values. The English philosopher Thomas Paine was one of the first to receive honorary citizenship status. In the eyes of the revolutionaries, a foreigner was not someone who came from another country, but someone who did not share the ideas of this society.

According to Renard, honorary citizenship was “a symbol of the Jacobins’ universalism.”

Another case is the French Foreign Legion, which allows soldiers from all over the world to fight for France. Legionnaires may apply for citizenship after three years of service, provided that “they have proven their willingness to integrate into the French Nation”. Citizenship is usually granted.

A more recent example comparable to Gassama’s story is that of fellow Malian Lassana Bathily. During the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015, Bathily hid customers at a Jewish supermarket  protect them from an Islamist gunman. A petition to give him French citizenship for his act of “heroism” was eventually successful.

An emerging debate

However, a debate is emerging about Gassama’s new citizenship. Ousmane Diarra, the president of the Malian Association of Expellees, an organisation that fights for the rights of deported Malians, questioned the links between an act of bravery and French citizenship: “We must not have to wait to save a Frenchman to become naturalised as a French citizen.”

In France, Gassama’s “heroism” is a polemical subject. Indeed, the general political context concerning immigration under Macron’s government is subject to heated debate.

In April, the French National Assembly passed stricter measures to control immigration. Three of these measures are considered controversial according to human rights groups: deadlines for asylum application will be shortened; failed asylum seekers can be detained for 90 days and there will be a one-year prison sentence for entering France illegally.

In his conversation with Gassama, Macron insisted on the fact that his act was “exceptional” – this appears to mean that he too would have been a candidate for deportation had he not saved the child.

That is why groups that help undocumented migrants and influential personalities underlined the contradictory actions of the government. Raphaël Glucksmann, managing editor of Le Nouveau Magazine Littéraire, a left-leaning literary review, expressed his mixed feelings towards Gassama’s situation in a post on Facebook: “I admire the bravery of Mamoudou Gassama. And I dream of a country where it wouldn’t be necessary to scale a building to save the life of a child, at the risk of one’s own life, to be treated like a human being when you are a migrant.”

According to statistics from the French Interior Ministry, only five people were given residency papers for “exceptional talent” in 2017. Meanwhile, of 100,412 applications for asylum, 32,011 were accepted by the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless People (OFPRA).

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