The summer superhero season has begun.
Only in France, the action wasn’t up on the big screen, but shot on cellphone screens. And it didn’t feature a Marvel character, but a marvelous display of character from Mamoudou Gassama, a 22-year-old Malian migrant who rescued a 4-year-old boy dangling from a fifth-story balcony.
Gassama did, however, pick up a Marvel moniker: “The Spiderman of the 18th” (arrondissement, or district), referring to how the real-life superhero swung into action to get to the boy who had become suspended five stories up.
The video, seen by millions worldwide, not only captured Gassama’s gutty, muscular balcony climb, but the sounds of relieved Parisians cheering in the streets.
The Parisian in Elysees Palace, French President Emmanuel Macron, cheered, too. And beyond the “bravo” he offered Gassama during their meeting, he gave the hero a home by granting him the ability to legally live in France — a relative rarity amid rising restrictions facing most migrants. Gassama was also offered a job as a firefighter in Paris.
The rescue was “an inspiring act, a heroic act and a spontaneous act,” Guillaume Lacroix, consul general of France to the Midwest, said in an interview. “This is inspiring for the French people, for the rest of the world; I’m really impressed with the impact this story is having.”
The impact would have occurred no matter which media form shared it. But the citizen-filmed, cinema-verite viral video was key.
“A story like this is a really important reminder of the way that digital technology can also be a powerful tool of sharing information and for connecting with each other for the in-the-moment capturing of something that’s both extraordinary and everyday life,” said Jessa Lingel, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.
Of course, digitally driven everyday life isn’t always extraordinary. And alas, that was the case in this tale, too, since the boy’s father had reportedly delayed his return from the market to play Pokémon Go on his cellphone on his way home.
“In a way, that only makes this whole episode even more perfect as a kind of snapshot of where we are in sort of thinking about digital life,” said Lingel.
Digital life can also take on a political life of its own. But eventually it gets put into a broader context — in this case, the enduring Mediterranean migration crisis that’s a factor in turbulent politics across the continent.
In Italy, for instance, the right-left combination of populist parties that knocked out centrists did so in part because of rising resistance to migrant and refugee resettlement.
Similar sentiment about the Mediterranean migration crisis — even in countries that haven’t taken in a significant share of refugees, such as most Eastern European nations — has resulted in voters choosing illiberal leaders.
In Great Britain, the issue was a factor, if not the factor, motivating many Brexit voters. And Germany’s generosity to migrants was a key reason the right-wing Alternative for Germany became the official opposition party in Parliament.
Back in France, the crisis will continue to test the more moderate Macron, who became president by beating back a challenge from Marine Le Pen, leader of the right-wing, anti-immigrant National Front party (since renamed National Rally).
While migration may have mitigated from its peak a few summers ago, the endless seasons of climate change, chronic conflict, and economic desperation in portions of the Mideast and Africa may make it a permanent political dynamic shaping already-shaky European politics and populations.
“Everything that happens which is noble and constructive and humanitarian — at one level you can only applaud and tip your hat and be sincerely grateful for those impulses,” said Jeffrey Gedmin, a nonresident senior fellow for the Future Europe Initiative at the Atlantic Council. “But it has to be embedded in the context of: In Europe, social welfare states, in Europe, political systems, in Europe, mainstream media, are all in some fashion in some sort of crisis, turmoil, moment of fluidity, moment of fragmentation. So from Macron, from [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, it’s going to require a great deal of wisdom, a great deal of balancing. It’s very important to be generous to refugees; it’s also important to be empathetic to the citizens who have to shoulder the responsibility of refugees coming into the country — not only the economic responsibility but also the social stress and demands it causes.”
And in fact, Macron underscored the balance even in meeting his nation’s new hero. “When they are in danger, we give asylum, but not for economic reasons,” the French president said of migrants in general. Regarding Gassama, however, he added: “But in your case, you did something exceptional.”
And yet, “an exceptional act does not make a policy,” Macron later told correspondents covering the meeting.
“This is a reality Europe is faced with,” said Lacroix. While policies are “meant to try to control our borders,” he said, France will continue to grant asylum to those persecuted. The key, he added, is “to help African countries stabilize when they are unstable and equally important help these countries provide a future of economic opportunities to help the population.”
Mali is unstable and unprosperous, and so Gassama braved a route through Burkina Faso, Niger and Libya, as well as a Mediterranean crossing to Italy, before arriving, undocumented, in France.
But soon the Malian migrant will be legally French.
Yet in a way, Gassama has already embodied his new nation, Lacroix said. “Liberty, equality, fraternity — this is our motto. And sometimes we tend to forget the third term of our motto, fraternity, because it is a value that is not so easy to characterize in political terms or in social terms because it is about people-to-people. So, it is an outstanding act of fraternity.
“And it makes us proud.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.