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The Dieudonné Affair in Franceby Mitchell Abidor An avalanche of outrage has been cascading down on the French comedian, provocateur, and Jew-hater Dieudonné. The performer has been on the receiving end of attacks from the French government, which succeeded in banning his public performances after he made a series of outrageous comments, including one likening a black minister in François Hollande’s government to a monkey and another regretting that a Jewish journalist who opposes him didn’t perish in the gas chambers. The government tax office, which Dieudonné has referred to as “Jerusalem,” then raided his offices and residences in search of proof that he had been hiding money to evade fines levied against him for his anti-Jewish comments. The scandale has even crossed the channel, where in England the French-born soccer star Nicolas Anelka was condemned and threatened with suspension for giving the quenelle, a salute invented by Dieudonné that resembles an inverted Nazi salute, with the left hand touching the top of the right arm, and the right arm extended downwards. Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, it must be pointed out, is black, the son of an African father and a Breton mother, and in one of his regularly posted YouTube clips responded to accusations that he was a Nazi by asking “Do I look like a Nazi?” His career, his standing among immigrant youth and the far-right, and the campaign against him speak to a plethora of issues that are in some ways unique to France but are actually of central importance throughout Europe — issues of immigration, exclusion, anti-Semitism, and free speech. Dieudonné’s trajectory itself is both curious and significant. He began his career as a comic in the 1990’s working with the Jewish performer Élie Semoun as Élie and Dieudonné. Their routines were often political, defending immigrants and mocking white French attitudes towards them. (Semoun is now on the receiving end of long anti-Semitic diatribes on the part of his former partner.) Dieudonné was also directly involved in politics from a distinctly left and anti-racist position, organizing demonstrations, running for office on independent leftwing lists, and distinguishing himself for his opposition to the National Front. Even then, however, the anti-Semitism and Holocaust revisionism that would consume him were in a larval stage, as he began denigrating the magnitude and significance of the Holocaust. Speaking out against indemnities for the survivors of deportation under the Vichy regime, he said that “slavery was the worst crime ever committed by humanity” and that “if France decides to indemnify the descendants of deportees, it has to do the same for the descendants of slaves.” The position was defensible, but set him on a slope he would later follow down to its basest depths. His opinions became clearer during his failed attempt to run for the presidency in 2002 (he didn’t meet the requirements to appear on the ballot), when he suggested that “for me the Jews are a sect, a swindle.” When he was unable to get financing in 2005 for a film he wanted to make on the slave trade, he attributed the failure to the “Zionists of the Central Nationale de la Cinématographe,” the body that distributes advances for films. Allegations of an historical Jewish monopoly in the slave trade soon became a constant theme in his interviews. In 2003, his conversion to full-blown anti-Semitism was displayed on a popular TV show in which he appeared dressed in a camouflage jacket, a black hat, false payess (sidelocks), and a mask, and harangued young Muslims to “join the Axis of good, the American-Zionist axis.” He ended by giving a Nazi salute and shouting “Isra-heil!” He would later run for president on the Anti-Zionist List (supported in this by Neturei Karta, the anti-Zionist Jewish religious sect). Dieudonné soon became close to the extreme right-winger Alain Soral, an important figure in the National Front and a firm believer in the Jewish control of the French government and French society. This association would eventually lead to Dieudonné’s appearing at the National Front’s annual “Blue White Red Festival.” His metamorphosis from comedian to demagogue was complete, and his comic routines have devolved into nothing but mockery and rants against his opponents, most particularly, the Jews. This black man, this son of an African immigrant and defender of the immigrant communities of France has himself found a defender in Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former paratrooper and torturer in Algeria who founded the racist, anti-immigrant National Front and is now godfather of one of Dieudonné’s children. Le Pen once described the Holocaust as “a point of detail of history,” so at that level they two men are natural allies, despite Dieudonné’s background. As the government was moving to ban the comedian’s shows, Le Pen spoke in Dieudonné’s defense, managing to inject paranoid anti-Semitism into it by saying that if the Keeper of the Seals (Minister of Justice) Manuel Valls feared violence it was because the minister himself had mustered strong-arm squads among members of the Jeunesse Israelite and the Jewish Defense League to break up Dieudonné's gigs. Questioned at a public forum about his anti-Semitism and his mocking of the Holocaust, Dieudonné lashed out at his questioner, saying he wasn’t going “to put up with any stories about the Shoah” and didn’t give a damn about it, that he wasn’t going to bother himself about it, he the heir of a long history of racism and oppression, and that in any case “there are no Jews, there are only people.” On another occasion, as he burned a five-euro note to show his contempt for money, he remarked that this was not the same as burning a thousand-franc note, as was once done by the Jewish singer Serge Gainsbourg, but that Dieudonné “was more modest, not having had a family killed at Auschwitz.” Dieudonné has wandered so far from comedy that he has performed a sketch with the revisionist historian Robert Faurisson, in which the two of them, wearing yarmulkes, mockingly lament the fate of the Jews, Dieudonné talking about his “162 family members” who died in the camps. His performances and weekly YouTube films drip with smugness and hatred, and every mention of a Jewish figure is lingered over and twisted mockingly. In a clip from early January he recommended that Arno Klarsfeld, son of Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld and a furious opponent of the comedian, contact him to get in touch with Faurisson and learn the truth about the Holocaust. What is especially curious about all this is that although Dieudonné denies the existence of the gas chambers, he wishes his opponents had perished in them. In his drive to mock the Holocaust he has set to a tropical beat his own neologism, Shoah-nanas, a combination of Shoah with the French word for pineapples (ananas). Rare is the performer who has invented a salute that becomes a sign of recognition among his admirers as well as a political statement, and it is Dieudonné’s rare (perhaps sole) genius to have been able to do so with the “quenelle.” A quenelle is a ground fish dish, one commonly described as resembling a suppository, and this was the idea behind his salute, which directly signifies “up yours.” During the recent battles over the comedian, a National Front member, when asked why he gave the salute, explained that “when I give the quenelle it’s because I’ve been screwed.” Its connection to Dieudonné has changed this — or, rather, added to it — Dieudonné's Jew-hatred leading his opponents to describe it as a version of the Nazi salute and directly anti-Semitic. His fans, in response, have adopted this interpretation and run wild with it. Photos are now regularly taken of people giving the quenelle in front of Jewish sites, at Auschwitz, at the Western Wall, and the school in Toulouse where four Jews were murdered by an Islamist in 2012 — or parading making the salute while holding pineapples. Perhaps no one better summed up its significance than Roger Cukierman, president of the representative body of French Jewry, the Conseil Représantatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF). While discussing the Nicolas Anelka episode, Cukierman said that in general the quenelle is a giving of the finger to society, but when done in a Jewish context it’s anti-Semitic. Although Cukierman later retracted this statement, there is much to be said for it: The firemen, prison guards, and soldiers who’ve been photographed giving the quenelle can’t all be anti-Semites, but as the campaign against Dieudonné mounted and focused on his anti-Semitic venom, the salute unquestionably became a “fuck you” to the Jews and to the power Dieudonné's supporters believe the Jews to exert, nowhere more apparently than in the government's banning of his shows. That a government would move to shut down a stand-up comedian’s performances is shocking to Americans and would be all but impossible here, a clear violation of the Constitution. There is no Bill of Rights in France, however, and although freedom of expression is wide, there are limits to it that French history has led the nation to impose. Incitement of racial hatred is unprotected and prosecutable speech there. The leader of the Jewish community in Bordeaux put the issue of free speech bluntly: “Free speech has its limits and we’ve seen where tolerance and freedom of expression have got us. Four years ago, when Dieudonné came to Bordeaux, he had a small tour bus, three years ago there was a crowd of 900 fans, and last year there were 4,000 of them. He is playing with our democracy." Dieudonné statements “are not opinions, they’re crimes," said Keeper of the Seals Valls as he was moving to ban Dieudonné’s show in Nantes, with the prosecutor for the prefecture of Nantes adding that an “act, a remark, can be an attack on human dignity. We’ve reached this point. Exceptional measures are needed to prevent this. Dieudonné is no longer an artist.” Freedom of expression has its defenders, however, and a spokesman for the League for the Rights of Man said that “the judge failed to see that freedom of expression prevails over prohibition. This is an extremely dangerous decision.” In the end it was the threat to public safety that was given as the reason for banning Dieudonné’s shows, which truly is a dangerous precedent. His supporters pointed out that he has been performing for years three nights a week at a theater he owns in Paris without any incidents, so the likelihood of violence in Nantes, the first city in which his tour was closed down, was small. More importantly, banning him makes the reaction to his performances more important than the performances, and opens the door to the banning of any gathering that features any controversial speaker. On the other hand, the U.S. is unique in its First Amendment guarantees. Throughout most of the rest of the world, racist speech is banned — and Dieudonné’s performances are, indeed, nothing but opportunties for racist speeches. Like it or not, that is a violation of French law. What does all of this signify about anti-Semitism in France? Is Dieudonné’s influence a sign of a recrudescence of Jew-hating, a return to the worst days of French history? Jewish groups have, indeed, been overwrought. Roger Cukierman of CRIF said: “It’s become painful, as a Jew, to live in France fearing for the lives of your children.” Serge Klarsfeld spoke of what he viewed as the brutal irony of the situation: “We’re in the only Western country where at the same time Jewish children are killed and anti-Jewish shows are freely open to the public.” Not to minimize events that have occurred in France, such as the 2006 torture-murder of Ilan Halimi by an anti-Semitic gang, to say that you’re “living in fear for your children” or that “Jewish children are killed” makes it appear that the country is in the grips of a mass slaughter of Jews unheard of since the war. It paints so catastrophic a portrait of the real conditions for French Jews as to be counter-productive, and plays into Dieudonné’s hands, providing ammunition for Dieudonné and those who support him. The journalist Anne Levy Willard wrote of her experience dealing with an Israeli news show that asked her if the fracas was a new Dreyfus Affair. She dismissed the notion out of hand. “It’s precisely the opposite. The entire political class unanimously, from right to left . . . denounced these shows that turn into anti-Jewish happenings. . . . The state apparatus, justice and the police want to apply the laws prohibiting incitement to racial hatred and Holocaust denial. Jurists are redefining freedom of speech which has its limits at calls for violence against a community . . . It’s a reverse image of the France of the Dreyfus Affair, and that’s a good thing.” The Dieudonné Affair is, as Willard observed, something entirely different. The anti-Semitism is not flowing down from the political class and the government, as occurred in the half-century leading up the World War II, but rather up from the underclass. This is a significant difference, and one that seems to have caught short the leaders of French Jewry. The rantings of this “comedian,” the hatred expressed by the marginalized of French society — the black and Arab youth of the cités who, according to sociologists, constitute the base of Dieudonnés audience and support — present a different danger than the top-down anti-Semitism that faced French Jews at the turn of the century and culminated in the 1940 defeat and its horrific after-effects. There is no existential threat to French Jewry today, as the state has gone perhaps even to extremes to oppose anti-Semitism by limiting free speech. Today's threat is far more diffuse, and more a symptom of Jewish integration and centrality to French life than of anything else. Jews are hated as the symbols of the establishment, not as "vermin" of the ghettos of Europe. As a scholar who has studied the Dieudonné phenomenon wrote, the comedian “says [to immigrant youth]: ‘Look, while you’re struggling the Jews are stuffing their pockets.’ And this works.” Dieudonné's quenelle represents a general and a specific "Up yours," as does its inventor. Yes, the National Front supports him in his acts, and there are National Front supporters in his audience, but if the heart of his support is among immigrant youth, it is because he represents a generalized attack on the status quo. When they give the quenelle, yes, they are saying “Up yours” to the Jews, but they’re also saying “Up yours” to France, to a political class that could not care less about them. Despite decades of education about it, the Holocaust has no meaning for Arab and black youth in France. All they see in it is a shield that frees a successful community within France, and the hated Israeli government, from criticism. In the main, these young people aren’t involved in or interested in politics; instead, Dieudonné serves as a malevolent French Beppe Grillo, the founder and leader of the Cinque Stelle movement in Italy, a supposedly non-political group that gives voice to popular disaffection with their rulers. There is no Cinque Stelle in France, and Dieudonné expresses the politics of the non-political. He expresses resentment, anger, and rage, all of which he vents on the Jews. Like the National Front he has allied himself with, he has no political ideas, just attitudes — and in a world where, since the death of socialism, ideas hold little sway, Dieudonné’s venom becomes a form of political discourse to which people can relate. The tragedy is that his case demonstrates, in a horrific way, that these emotions still find outlet in anti-Semitism, and still target the Jews. Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the translator and editor of the forthcoming anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender, as well as the first English translation of Jean Jaurès’ Socialist History of the French Revolution, which will be published by Pluto Press in 2015. For a background perspective on French anti-Semitism (and exaggerated American Jewish fears about it), please Myriam Miedzian's 2008 article for Jewish Currents, "Anti-Semitism: A Tale of Two Countries."
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.