Dieudonné and the limits of free speech
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
So he backed down. The French comedian and firebrand Dieudonné (above; full name Dieudonné M’bala M’bala) has been forced to shelve the material he was intending to use for a sold-out tour across France over the next three weeks. The tour went ahead with a gig in Paris earlier this week, but apparently without any overtly anti-Semitic content.
With a show imminent in Nantes last Friday, the Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls stepped in, using all the judicial powers at his disposal to cancel it, in an attempt to break what he described as “une dynamique de haine”. In doing so, he overruled the decision the authorities in Nantes had taken to allow Dieudonné to perform, as they felt a ban would amount to “a serious assault on freedom of expression”, and would therefore be illegal.
But the Ministry of the Interior saw it differently: aside from the “serious risks of public disorder” (I guess that could arise from either course of action – there will be some very angry Dieudonné fans out there), they invoked “a serious attack on the respect due to the values and principles consecrated by the Declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen and by the republican tradition” (it talks of “graves atteintes” whereas the Nantes authorities had “une atteinte grave” – the nuances of the French language . . . ). Interestingly, one poll has shown the French marginally against the actions of the government, although there is overwhelming disapproval of Dieudonné’s stance.
According to Le Monde, Dieudonné’s show contains material that is not only anti-Semitic but also incites racial hatred; the Ministry describes it as an “apology for discrimination, persecution and extermination perpetrated during the Second World War . . .”. Dieudonné has defended Marshal Pétain (not many do that these days), describing him as “less racist than [President] François Hollande”, and welcomed the Holocaust-denying historian Robert Faurisson on stage. He also sings a song called “Shoananas” (“ananas” is a pineapple), so the play on “Shoah” is clear. Having started out on the political Left, he has since flirted with the far Right (he accompanied the founder of the Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen, on a trip to Cameroon in 2007 – his father is from Cameroon – and Le Pen is godfather to one of his children). The arm gesture he patented, the quenelle, is seen by many as a reverse Nazi salute; he maintains it is an anti-establishment, anti-Zionist gesture. (The French footballer and friend of the comedian Nicolas Anelka recently used it as a goal celebration while playing for the English club West Bromwich Albion – no action was taken against him by the English football authorities. When questioned by French journalists, Anelka used the "anti-establishment" line.)
Clearly Valls’s decision wasn’t taken lightly; all sorts of clichéd expressions come to mind: “slippery slope”, “thin edge of the wedge” etc. But as Le Monde robustly points out, Dieudonné’s utterances are more than mere opinions; they constitute offences (“des délits”) and as such are punishable by law. The paper, incidentally, has been gunning for Dieudonné: it recently published a detailed exposé of the comedian’s complicated financial arrangements. Among other details it revealed that former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad co-financed his DVD and internet film L’Antisémite.
Elsewhere the paper ran an article by Soreen Seelow on the “Génération Dieudonné”, who are mostly young (their opinions therefore matter all the more), left-leaning and claim the right to be able to laugh at anything while denying any taint of anti-Semitism. The Holocaust, for them, is the last comedic taboo while Dieudonné is “the most talented comedian of his generation”. Some complain that they were over-exposed to the history of the Holocaust at school (“we never hear about the Rwandan genocide”), while others, of North African origin, talk “of a hierarchy of racism”: “At school they tell us about Germany’s crimes, but much less about France’s crimes: colonization and slavery. There’s a fear of creating an anti-French feeling among young people from immigrant backgrounds . . . ”. The paper even found a young Jewish male in his audience, who defended the comedian on the grounds that his show constitutes an attack on the “instrumentalization of the Holocaust as described by the American political scientist Norman Finkelstein” – clearly an informed opinion then. But in the same paper a couple of days later Jean Birnbaum expressed the fear that his followers were broadly ignorant and uninterested in history. The Association France Palestine Solidarité, meanwhile, has distanced itself from him, calling him a “political militant of the far Right”.
As chance would have it, I’ve recently been reading Robert Harris’s absorbing and well-researched novel, An Officer and a Spy, about the army officer Alfred Dreyfus who was wrongfully convicted of passing on military secrets to the Germans. Although it would be absurd to suggest that the Dieudonné saga has the capacity to convulse, indeed tear apart, the French nation in the way the Dreyfus affair did, crudely pitting Catholics, militarists and monarchists against republicans and those on the Left, there is at least one common thread: anti-Semitism. Dreyfus was Jewish, of course, as well as being Alsatian (from Strasbourg) and therefore suspiciously German – he even spoke French with a slight German accent.
Alfred Dreyfus (standing) at his second trial, in Rennes, 1899; four years of solitary confinement on Devil's Island have clearly taken their toll (he is not yet forty) – from The Man on Devil's Island
In his acknowledgements Robert Harris thanks Dr Ruth Harris of New College Oxford, whose The Man on Devil’s Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the affair that divided France (2010) he found “immensely useful”. Ruth Harris’s book is a remarkable work, complex, original and illuminating, as well as being deeply researched and wonderfully well written. Among other things, she points out that it would be facile to divide the Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards along Left and Right lines: for instance there were some who “denounced racial anti-Semitism, but still campaigned against Dreyfus as a means of supporting the army”. But the anti camp were mostly on the right of politics, and the crudeness of some of their rhetoric is still shocking to read.
Harris draws parallels between the Affair and the present. "Today right-wing nationalists keep company with some members of the left outraged by the incursion of religious symbolism into secular education" (this is, admittedly, a reference to the divisive issue of the veil). Nevertheless it seems that today in France, the apparent resurgence of anti-Semitism can be found on the Left as much as on the Right.
Dreyfus himself, a patriot to the last, re-enlisted during the First World War. His granddaughter Madeleine was later in the Resistance. She was deported to Auschwitz where she died in 1944.