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In its ham-handed attempts to fight anti-Semitism, France is turning a bad comedian into a hero of the country’s disenfranchised and disaffected.
"The Republic has won," French Interior Minister Manuel Valls proudly declared after the Council of State, the country’s highest court, banned a show by the black comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala in Nantes. Overblown as the rhetoric sounds, it accurately reflects the gravity of what the government’s own actions have turned into a battle for national coherence.
Dieudonne, 47, has never attempted to be politically correct. Even as he was starting out in the 1990s with his Jewish partner, Elie Semoun, many of the jokes in their skits were about race. In recent years, however, he appears to have crossed the line, consorting with extremists from Marie Le Pen’s National Front and Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson, and expressing regret that a Jewish TV journalist can’t be sent to a gas chamber. France has laws against anti-Semitism and genocide denial, and Dieudonne has been repeatedly convicted for violating them.
Banned from TV, Dieudonne has been increasingly marginalized. French newspapers started putting the word "comedian" in quotation marks when referring to him. Nowadays, they prefer to call him a "polemicist." He is known for having coined the term "shoananas" from the Hebrew word for Holocaust and the French for pineapple, and for inventing the quenelle, a gesture some have described as an inverted Nazi salute. (A quenelle is an elongated meat pie; Dieudonne says he wants to stick one up Zionist backsides.)
"I knew you when you were funnier," Semoun wrote in an open letter to his former friend.
Funny or not, Dieudonne has a following. His friend, former French national soccer player Nicolas Anelka, did a quenelle late last year to celebrate a goal he had scored for West Bromwich in the U.K. The gesture has become common among disaffected suburban youths. Young blacks and Arabs, who feel left out of French society, see it as an expression of anti-establishment views.
When Dieudonne decided to go on tour early this year with a show called The Wall, sold-out houses were already assured.
Then the government interfered. Valls sent out a circular to local authorities, saying that the show contained anti-Semitic slurs and was offensive to the memory of Holocaust victims, and that though the Interior Ministry didn’t have the power to ban it nationwide, city authorities could do so to "preserve public order." Valls insisted that Dieudonne’s shows were in fact "political gatherings aimed at peddling hate."
Some mayors, notably former prime minister Alain Juppe, now serving as mayor of Bordeaux, immediately banned performances. In Nantes, however, where the tour was to start in a 5,000-seat venue on Thursday, a local court overturned the ban, ruling that the show didn’t endanger public order.
Valls went immediately to the Council of State to argue his case. The high court ruled that risks to public order were "well-established." In fact, riot police had to be sent in when the audience assembled for the show was told it would not take place. Dieudonne fans did the quenelle and demanded freedom of expression until the comedian himself told them to go home so as not to validate the authorities’ claims.
"They want physical confrontation," he wrote on Facebook, "so go home singing the Marsellaise."
The Dieudonne affair is about more than anti-Semitism. As the philosopher Roger-Pol Droit wrote in the newspaper Les Echos, it is about "the two sides of France." "One is the Republic, bringing together all those who agree about the basic principles," he wrote. "The other side unashamedly considers all this to be nonsense. For this reason it does not consider Dieudonne sinister but hilarious, attractive, provocative, even liberating."
In these terms of "us versus them," Valls is bravely standing up for "the Republic" and winning battles on its behalf. In practice, he is turning unfunny comedy into protest under a perfectly legitimate banner: freedom of speech. Dieudonne fans are less dangerous when they are laughing in a theater than when they face bans and police shields. They listen to the "polemicist" because they feel rejected by official France, with its ostensible liberalism and egalitarianism and its collapsing welfare state. Reinforcing this rejection is hardly the right thing to do.
Valls and others who would ban racist comedy shows and other such outlets for public ignorance need an injection of Jewish wisdom. Here’s how Anshel Pfeiffer put it in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: "The way to counter Dieudonne’s malignant influence is through education, not hysteria. The calls by some French-Jewish politicians to outlaw the quenelle are misguided. Nothing could do more to make it seem even hipper. It’s not enough to say that racism is wrong, the message must be that it’s uncool."
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor.