Comedian’s Free-Speech Struggle Accentuates Rifts In French Society
BRUSSELS —Many French people were no doubt glued to their radios or social networks Jan. 10 to follow what is probably one of the most incredible sagas in France’s history of freedom of expression.
It all started when Interior Minister Manuel Valls sent a circular – a non-binding recommendation – earlier this month to all prefects (regional police chiefs) setting out the legal remedies that exist to ban performances by Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala – better known as Dieudonné – a Franco-African humorist very popular among young people and who is starting a national tour with his latest show. But many accuse him – and his shows – of being anti-Semitic.
“No one should be able to use this show for provocation and to promote openly anti-Semitic ideas,” President Francois Hollande told a meeting of senior government officials in Paris last Tuesday. “I am calling on all representatives of the state, particularly its prefects, to be on alert and inflexible.”
As a result, several French cities banned Dieudonné’s performances: Marseille, Bordeaux, Tours, and Nantes, with this latest city being the opening venue of the comedian’s tour Jan. 10.
The humorist nevertheless sought to reverse the prohibition through Nantes’s administrative court. The 6,000 people who bought tickets, as well as many others, eagerly awaited the decision.
The court declared that prohibiting the show represented a “serious infringement of the freedom of expression, and given the absence of a motive that would have justified it,” the infringement was illegal.
A threat to public order
But the battle was not over. Valls immediately appealed to the Council of State, the highest court for public administration. And in what was undeniably the fastest decision in its history, the court announced that due to the “threat to public order” and “clear abuses of values and principles in the Declaration of Human Rights,” it considered it justified to ban the show.
No doubt aware that a preventive prohibition remains difficult to justify in a democracy, the Council insisted the decision was exceptional. And with that, the 6,000 who wanted to see Dieudonné perform were denied.
The polemics around the comedian have been going on for months now, with the French establishment discussing the best way to stop Dieudonné. Tactics range from trying to jail him for “incitement to racial hatred,” closing his shows on grounds of a potential “threat to public order,” or pressuring municipalities by threatening to cut subsidies if they allow him to perform. But one thing seems clear — they want his career destroyed.
Officially, he has become a target because of his mocking of the Holocaust and making fun of Jews. But the fact is the comedian has made fun of other religions as well, and also goes after Africans, Chinese … No one or group gets spared from his humor. Yet most of all, he has turned laughter against the entire political establishment.
He has popularized a gesture that he calls the “quenelle,” and it is being imitated by young people all over France. To many of them, it’s a gesture that simply means “up yours,” with one hand placed at the top of the other arm pointing down to signify “how far up” this is. It probably means, “We are fed up.”
But the country’s leading Jewish organizations say the “quenelle” is actually“a Nazi salute in reverse.” A position supported by the French establishment and the mainstream media.
The uproar has reached neighboring Belgium, where it’s discussed on television and radio, as well as Algeria, the country of origin of many French migrants. One article by Algeria news, “France: An Intellectual Theocracy,” denounces the comedian’s “lynching” by French media.
An icon for French Muslims
Dieudonné has become a sort of icon for many young French Muslims because they feel they experience the same sort of rejection and stigmatization; and because he is very much engaged in favor of the Palestinians. A lot of them are convinced that France applies double standards: when someone insults or attacks a black or a Muslim, there is no reaction. But when someone attacks a Jew, the scandal is almost immediate.
Passions run so high that a real debate seems impossible. People who attempt to defend Dieudonné – not necessarily because they agree with what he says but out of freedom of expression – run the risk of being accused of anti-Semitism. Those who think the decision by the Council of State is not legally justified feel uncomfortable, because they think this puts them on the same side as the “anti-Semitic” Dieudonné. And the discussion of freedom of expression has been completely hijacked by the “anti-Semitic” aspect.
Dieudonné was born in 1966 in a Paris suburb. His mother was white, from Brittany and his father was African, from Cameroon, which makes him a typical product of a multicultural society. During the first part of his career, he teamed up with his Jewish friend Elie Simoun and campaigned against racism, focusing his criticism on the far-right National Front Party. He brilliantly targeted current events in his shows and his career flourished. He acted in movies and was a regular guest on television.
Then 10 years ago, as guest on the current events TV show “You Can’t Please Everybody,” Dieudonné appeared roughly disguised as “a radical Israeli settler,” advising people to “join the American-Israeli Axis of Good.” This was the time of the U.S. assault on Iraq, which France had refused to join. An ironic attack on George Bush’s policy seemed totally in the mood of the times. The sketch ended with a brief salute, “Isra-heil.” The studio audience gave him a standing ovation.
But then protests started, especially concerning the final gesture, which was interpreted as likening Israel to Nazi Germany. Jewish organizations accused him of anti-Semitism, although the target was clearly Israel and the U.S. Calls poured in to ban his shows, to sue him, to destroy his career.
No right to think differently
Thus began a decade of escalation. The International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, or LICRA, began a long series of lawsuits against him for “incitement to racial hatred.” The humorist won some and lost others. But instead of backing down, Dieudonné went further in his criticism of Zionism after each attack, going from provocation to provocation. He was gradually excluded from television appearances and treated as a pariah by mainstream media.
And then came the “quenelle.” The plethora of images on the Internet showing young people making the sign must have convinced the establishment that trying to ignore him was not enough.
On Jan. 6, two 17-year-old students were briefly placed in custody for a photograph taken in December at their school of one of them making the “quenelle” gesture. One of the teachers lodged a complaint for an “apology of crimes against humanity.”
“We were told we made an anti-Semitic gesture, but this is not what I wanted to do. I was doing it against society,” one of the students said.
They were later expelled from their school.
Dieudonné is probably the only French artist who has been defying the system for 10 years. He is incredibly talented, and he makes many laugh. Despite the boycott organized by the establishment, he remains popular. His Facebook page has almost 500,000 fans, and some of his videos on You Tube have been seen 2 million times. These people are not all anti-Semitic, so there is clearly something else about the issue. And this is probably where the real question lies: Why is it that so many people like Dieudonné’s shows?
As Guillaume, a student, confided to the daily Le Monde, Dieudonné opened new ways of thinking.
“With other French humorists, it is funny, but my brain is off. Dieudonné, he really makes you think.”
The fierceness of the battle against Dieudonné and the stigmatization of the young people who make the “quenelle,” seem to be sending the message that individuals don’t have the right to think differently.
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