Hugh Carnegy in Paris — FT.com Jan 10, 2014
France’s socialist government has vowed to pursue its campaign against a comic accused of anti-Semitism on the internet after winning legal backing for its actions to ban his live shows.
In the latest move in an affair that has escalated into a major national controversy, Manuel Valls, the interior minister, said “the law must be able to act” against the online publication of what he called the “racist and anti-Semitic speech” of Dieudonné M’bala M’bala.
“We cannot let this speech spread. We must discuss this with [internet] operators,” he said, although he acknowledged this was “not simple, legally”.
The government’s aggressive pursuit of Dieudonné, as he is known, has been broadly supported by anti-racist campaigners and politicians of both mainstream left and right, especially mayors of towns and cities where the comedian has booked tour dates over the coming weeks.
But the unleashing of the full force of the state against a figure relatively low-profile until the past two weeks has prompted concern that the government has overreacted, fuelling support for the comic.
On Thursday night, about 6,000 mainly young people who had bought tickets for Dieudonné’s opening tour date in the western city of Nantes loudly cheered their support for him after the show was cancelled at the last minute following a ruling by the Council of State, the highest administrative court.
Dozens were shown on live television making the quenelle salute, a straight-arm gesture invented by Dieudonné that his detractors say is a deliberate inverse Nazi salute.
The rightwing Le Figaro newspaper commented that the court decision was a “fragile victory” for Mr Valls.
“In the eyes of many, this odious man has become a martyr,” it said in an editorial. “The pariah has acquired the status of the champion of free speech. It is extraordinary.”
Dieudonné, the son of a father from Cameroon and a French mother, has a long record of convictions for anti-Semitism. His stage show contains jokes about Jews and a song called “Shoananas”, a play on the Hebrew word for the Nazi holocaust and the French word for pineapple.
But he denies he is anti-Semitic and he has become for some a symbol of a broader dissent, especially among the young.
In recent months, there have been a series of cases of people publishing pictures on the internet of themselves doing the quenelle, including pupils in school, a teacher, serving soldiers and two visitors to a theme park dressed in costumes as the cartoon characters Asterix and Obelix.
Mr Valls stepped up action against Dieudonné after it was reported that the comic said of a critical journalist during a recent Paris show: “When I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I think to myself – gas chambers.”
The minister issued instructions to local prefects urging them to ban Dieudonné shows as a threat to public order. An initial ban in Nantes was struck down by a local court following an appeal by Dieudonné’s lawyers. But that in turn was overruled by the Council of State. On Friday, a local court upheld a further ban on a show in the city of Tours.
Mr Valls and Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault welcomed the state council’s ruling as “a victory for the Republic”.
But others warned of the danger of placing public order above human rights. Pierre Tartakowsky, president of the Human Rights League, said the decision had “serious consequences for the freedom of speech”.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front whose popularity is on the rise, also weighed into the debate. She has condemned Dieudonné’s statements, although he is an acknowledged friend of her father Jean-Marie Le Pen. But she attacked the banning of his shows as censorship.
“I hope it will be condemned by the European Court of Human Rights,” she said