Mamoudou Gassama.
Mamoudou Gassama.
Image: FT.com

He was nicknamed “Spider-Man” for his super-human ability to scale a building, but Mamoudou Gassama is subject to the vagaries of Parisian traffic just like the rest of us. I’ve been waiting for him in a West African restaurant in the 14th arrondissement [suburb] for almost 20 minutes when I receive a text message from Mams Yaffa, his translator: a motorcycle protest is blocking the road and they are running late.

After weeks of disruption by the yellow vests protesters, minor logistical hiccups have become the norm. To pass the time, I decide to watch, once again, the viral YouTube video that shows how, in some 30 seconds, Gassama became a national hero, saving a small child who was dangling from the fourth-floor balcony of a Parisian apartment block. He swiftly climbed the façade and lifted the four-year-old to safety, while an astonished crowd watched the drama unfold from the street below.

Gassama, who comes from the troubled former French colony of Mali, was then one of France’s hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants. His daring captured the imagination just as President Emmanuel Macron was moving to toughen immigration laws following electoral gains by the far-right.

I first encountered Gassama in early December, at a charity dinner organised by LVMH — his life having changed dramatically since May. His new-found celebrity resulted in a string of awards, an audience with Macron at the Elysée Palace, and a fast track to French citizenship. Resplendent in Malian national dress, he had been invited to the charity dinner by the luxury group’s social responsibility executives. My initial invitation to lunch was declined, because Gassama’s days are taken up by work experience with the Paris Fire Brigade (a suggestion of Macron’s, I later learn). So we settle on dinner instead.

It’s past 10pm when Gassama and his entourage finally arrive at Le Griot, which in West Africa is the word for a storyteller or oral historian. Here in Paris, it’s a small restaurant on an otherwise non-descript street in the south of the city. Brightly coloured tablecloths in an array of African prints brighten a sparse white room. The musical selection is coming from Trace FM Martinique, and accompanying dance videos are beamed on to one entire wall via a projector.

Gassama has arrived with two other Malians: Yaffa, who, depending on the moment, takes on the role of consigliere, PR man, translator or personal photographer; and another friend, Hadietou Kebe. Not only has lunch with the FT turned into dinner, but we appear to be four people rather than the usual two. I decide to roll with it.

Tonight Gassama is low-key in black jeans and a black bomber jacket that hides a hoodie emblazoned with “Paris” across the chest. He greets me with a kiss on each cheek and we exchange pleasantries in French. Yaffa appears to know most of the people in the restaurant, which he describes as “le Mali à Paris”, but it’s Gassama’s first time here. A group of Malians are on their way out and joking with Yaffa; I don’t understand a word but it all sounds very jolly.

We take a table by the window, and Gassama explains how he first met Kebe — at a refugee camp in Italy in 2015. It turned out the two were from nearby villages in Mali; now they are neighbours in Montreuil, an eastern suburb of Paris.

Gassama is learning French but it’s not as good as the Italian he picked up while living in Rome, Italy being his first stop in Europe in 2014. Given that my Soninke and Bambara (his other two languages) are non-existent, it’s decided that Yaffa will act as a go-between, translating Gassama’s Soninke into French or English.

It’s getting late, so after a quick flick through a slightly battered menu, we order. The choice is a melange of dishes from Mali, Cameroon, Senegal and Ivory Coast, with a few international staples such as hamburgers and fries thrown in for good measure. I follow Gassama and Kebe’s lead and order mafé, which I’m told is a Malian speciality involving slow-cooked beef in a peanut-based sauce. Yaffa claims not to be hungry after a late lunch and settles for a starter of avocado with prawns and mango. We choose ginger and hibiscus juices, as I turn the conversation to Gassama’s remarkable story.

And so the shy young man before me tentatively starts to recount how he came to be in France. He grew up in a village in south-west Mali, the fifth of eight children, and farmed millet with his family, never going to school. On the local football team, “Zidane was his nickname,” says Yaffa, referring to Zinedine Zidane, former star of the French national squad.

At 15, Gassama moved hundreds of miles from his village to Bamako, the Malian capital. At the time, the northern and southern parts of Mali were locked in civil war, but that isn’t the reason Gassama gives for his departure. The Soninke ethnic group has a well-established travelling tradition, and Gassama says his goal was to go on an adventure and make a success of his life. He settled on France as a final destination because of its history as a host to Malian immigrants.

Libya is very difficult for black African people. They beat you, they put you in jail, they kill some people, and they put some people in slavery too. There is a lot of racism there
Mamoudou Gassama

In Bamako, he worked as a builder to make money to travel to Abidjan, capital of Ivory Coast. While still a teenager, he crossed Burkina Faso, Niger and then entered Libya, travelling through the Sahara desert in a four-by-four vehicle.

Gassama’s descriptions are short and factual, and he needs encouragement to offer more details. “It was very hard, especially when we arrived at the border between Niger and Libya,” he says. “You are in the car but sometimes you have to get out of the car and push it, and to walk in the desert. You don’t have much water, it’s very hot, the sun is right above you. Some people don’t make it to Libya, they die on the route.”

Gassama was thwarted in his first attempt, in 2013, to cross from Libya to Italy by boat. “When the border officers found me on a boat in the sea they put me in jail.”

Later on, he becomes more forthcoming about the conditions in Libya, explaining that he wants to set up a foundation to help people there. “It’s very hard for immigrant people in Libya,” he says. “I did it and so I know how hard it is to take this path. Libya is very difficult for black African people. They beat you, they put you in jail, they kill some people, and they put some people in slavery too. There is a lot of racism there.”

In no time at all, the food arrives: three steaming bowls of rice to soak up large chunks of meat and vegetables in a thick brown sauce.

Gassama’s second attempt to reach Italy was successful, as his crowded boat was rescued by a humanitarian vessel, and he spent a month in Sicily at Italy’s largest refugee camp, before being flown by military plane to another migration centre in Rome.

His arrival in Europe coincided with the peak of the immigration debate, as the continent’s leaders wrestled with how to handle the influx of people. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel made the decision to welcome more than 1-million migrants in 2015 — a move that has had resounding consequences for global politics.

Gassama had two older brothers living in Paris and so after three years living in Rome, he went to join them. He arrived in 2017, making his way to the Malian “foyer” — a sort of hostel for temporary workers — in Montreuil. It’s often called “Little Bamako” and is home to some 6,000 to 10,000 of France’s 100,000 Malian immigrants.

The three of us who ordered mafé cover it in hot sauce. Gassama drinks a glass of water in one go after a particularly spicy mouthful, while also giving his view of France’s immigration system. “It’s not easy, the condition of immigration. You have left your family behind you and it’s not easy to live out of your country.” He was lucky, he says, because he was able to live with his brothers. “The French government has to decide what they have to do, but I know the poor conditions that some immigrant people live in, so I think they can do more to help people.”

As I work my way through the mafé — something of an acquired taste — I steer the conversation to the day of the rescue. It was a May weekend in 2018 and Gassama was walking with a friend through the 18th arrondissement to go and watch the Champions League final. “I suddenly saw many people looking upwards and some of them are crying. And then I see a child.”

Gassama must have been asked to share his rescue story hundreds of times but there is no elaboration or bravado in the retelling of it. Only a bashful smile as he bites his bottom lip and says simply, “I just go.” Where did you learn to climb, I wonder. “I never tried it before. There is not a big tree in my country. I don’t know, I just go.”

WATCH | Mamoudou Gassama scales building in Paris to rescue a child:

At this crucial moment we are interrupted by the restaurant owner, who comes to see if we want more food. Yaffa appears to have regained his appetite, and after some deliberation orders a fish main course.

I prompt Gassama to go on. “In that situation you don’t think about anything. I say maybe I can help him. You say ‘OK, let’s go’. Because if you try to think or you weigh up whether you go or don’t go, you never go.”

Gassama’s feat was captured on a smartphone video and posted on social media. By the Monday after the rescue, he was at the centre of an international media storm. Days later he was invited to meet Macron, who called the move “an exceptional act, an act of heroism”.

“I never thought at any time in my life I would meet the president or go to the Elysée Palace,” says Gassama. “It was like I was dreaming.” Macron told him that he was a hero, and thanked him on behalf of the French people. “And he told me that I should train to become a fireman because what I did is like the work of a fireman.”

The plates are cleared. Gassama and Kebe have polished off their mafé and rice but I have been defeated by mine.

Four months after the rescue, Gassama became a Frenchman in a ceremony in Paris, bypassing the normal route to citizenship that involves living legally in the country for at least five years. “I was very, very, very happy to be a Frenchman,” he says with a smile. “So now I’m a French and Malian man.”

Gassama says he doesn’t have an opinion on French politics, or the yellow vests movement that is rocking the government. I ask him if he likes Macron, whom some criticised as hypocritical for praising Gassama while trying to deport others like him, writing off the president’s invitation to the Elysée Palace as a PR stunt. “He’s my president, you know, so I like him,” he says.

And what does the future hold for Gassama, beyond his 10-month stint with the Paris firefighters? “What I want in the future is to build my own family and to help my own family in Africa. I want to get a good job and to have children. The best thing you can have in life is to build your own family. After that I don’t know what life will reserve for me.”

With this thought hanging in the air, Gassama and Kebe, who has remained largely silent during dinner, disappear outside for a cigarette. The restaurant owner quickly follows, bringing them two espressos as a pretext to a photo opportunity. By this point an enormous fish and a plate of yam chips have arrived for Yaffa.

We mull on the effects of becoming an overnight celebrity in a foreign country. Yaffa, who runs a communications consultancy, tells me he is a friend of Gassama’s brothers in Paris, and was brought in by the elders of the Soninke community to manage the situation after Gassama’s rescue pushed him into the limelight — and on to the global events circuit. “Everyone stops him, everyone wants to take a photograph of him,” says Yaffa, in between mouthfuls of fish. “It’s not easy.”

Yaffa pulls out his iPhone to illustrate his point: there’s Gassama in Russia at the World Cup; in Los Angeles, where he was honoured as a humanitarian hero by Black Entertainment Television and met rapper Snoop Dogg; meeting Irina Bokova, the former director-general of Unesco. There’s even a video of Gassama with the New York City Fire Department, in which an incredulous American voice can be heard saying, “look, it’s Spider-Man”.

As Gassama and his friend return to the table, I ask him how he feels about this newly acquired celebrity status. Gassama — part of the Instagram generation and with his own personal PR manager — seems to be philosophical about the fleeting nature of fame. “When you become a celebrity it’s because there are people around you who say that you are. People can just as easily say that you’re not a celebrity, that you’re nothing. For me it doesn’t change my life. I did what I had to do and that’s life. I’m still the same person that I was before.”

And like millions of other 23-year-olds from Bamako to Paris, he just wants to hang out with his friends, playing football or PlayStation. He says he still hasn’t been up the Eiffel Tower and is keen to visit the Quai Branly museum of indigenous art.

Where is home for you, I wonder, as the evening draws to a close. Gassama looks thoughtful as Yaffa translates the question into Soninke and then a smile crosses his face. Nodding and pointing with his hand to his sweatshirt, he says quietly, “Here. Paris. Here.”

- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019.

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