No laughing matter

Comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala has suddenly emerged as a main topic of discussion in France, denying its government and openly expressing an obsessive hatred of Jews.

Comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala (photo credit: CITIZENSIDE/ PATRICE PIERROT/ AFP)
Comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala
 STAND-UP COMIC Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, 47, known professionally as Dieudonné (god-given), haunts the front pages of France’s major newspapers and news magazines. And apart from the French president’s amours, television and radio talk shows debate little else than his challenge to the authorities and to French society in general.
Once a trendy and respected comedian, Dieudonné, the son of a black African father and a white French mother, first dabbled in politics when he stood unsuccessfully for parliament in 1997 as an anti-racist candidate opposed to extreme-rightist JeanMarie Le Pen’s National Front (FN) party.
But today, Le Pen is godfather to one of Dieudonné’s daughters. And Dieudonné, who broke into big-time show business playing for years alongside a Jewish comedian and then-close friend, has since specialized in aggressive anti-Semitic “jokes,” especially those mocking the Shoah.
He once tried to run for president of France on a platform backed by Holocaust deniers and Israel haters from some of the most extreme ultra-leftist and ultra-rightist quasi-lunatic fringes in the country.
Dieudonné revels in wallowing in vulgarity and obscenity and is adored by his fans for it. He has created a gesture, “La Quenelle,” which has gone viral on the Internet and is widely recognized as a sign of recognition among anti-Semites.
Although the courts have sentenced him nine times to fines for incitement to racial hatred (fines he has so far avoided paying), Dieudonné has persisted on stage with such cracks as, “I told my dad he should have died at Auschwitz. It’s classy and we could have made money out of it afterwards” or “Why should I have to choose between the Jews and the Nazis? I wasn’t born, so how should I know what happened, and who was robbing whom? But I have my suspicions.”
In a new stance for the French legal system, which very rarely bans theater productions, and then, only once an offence has been committed, the opening performance of a new roadshow by Dieudonné was banned in the western French city of Nantes on January 9, just two hours before the curtain was due to be raised. That ban was quickly followed by similar ones preventing him from appearing on stage in Tours, in Orleans and in Paris. All the bans were based on the need to preserve public order and to “prevent affronts to human dignity.”
Saying he was not anti-Semitic, Dieudonné called off his show on January 11 and said he would stage a new one in Paris devoid of anti-Semitism. Authorities first refused, but then gave him permission, warning that each appearance would be under severe scrutiny and he would be prosecuted as soon as he ran afoul of the law.
“We cannot tolerate hatred for others, racism, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. That is not possible, because this would no longer be France if we did,” said Interior Minister Manuel Valls, leader of the campaign against Dieudonné. “The fight against this nauseating character will continue,” vowed Valls, who became a French citizen at the age of 20 and is the son of a Spanish political refugee.
The Zenith stadium in Nantes where Dieudonné was scheduled to appear on January 9 had sold nearly all of its 6,500 seats and would-be spectators booed the senior police officer who announced the ban over a bullhorn outside the theater.
Dieudonné ’s mainstay theater in central Paris is the tiny 250-seat Theater of the Golden Hand, where he habitually gives two evening shows, three times a week, several times a year, and from where he may soon be evicted.
“The problem is not the relatively small number of people who attend Dieudonné’s performances. The problem is the Internet, where some of his videos are seen more than a million times,” says Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist on extremist movements in Europe at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), a leading French think tank.
“That doesn’t mean he has one million followers because some fans see his videos 10 times over and everyone who views them out of curiosity isn’t won over. But there are certainly at least 100,000 faithful followers, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of others who look in. That is a considerable number,” Camus tells The Jerusalem Report.
“Dieudonné spreads his delirium on YouTube, on his websites, through his tweets and blogs, and opens up a totally different universe compared to the one we knew in the past, which was based on paper. If we were still in the paper age, he would probably not even have the means to produce a newspaper.
“Unfortunately, today in France, as elsewhere, there exists a whole segment of the country’s youth who form their opinions solely from the virtual world of the web. In this world, ideas are diluted because they have to fit into the 140 characters of a tweet, or in the language of a text message. The meaning of things loses out and people choose the political parties they follow or the personalities they worship solely by seeing them on video,” Camus says.
“His viewers really believe politics are a theater manipulated as in a conspiracy theory. Theirs is a sort of counter-society, which works via the web and social media where they seek ‘clean news,’ not in the hands of the so-called Zionist lobby, which obsesses them,” Camus adds.
But, for the time being, Dieudonné is a distasteful outcast for a majority of the French.
According to an opinion poll by the BVA group published on January 11, the percentage of people who said they had a bad opinion of him was 83 percent, against 14 percent who had a positive view. Three percent did not know.
“ALL OPINION polls show that antiSemitism has continued to go down in France decade after decade and that it is now minute, except among people of Muslim immigrant origin,” says Camus.
There are an estimated six million Muslims in France, 10 percent of the total population. Most were born in or are children of natives of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia – North African Arab states once ruled by France. People born in France, who now make up a majority of France’s Muslims, automatically receive French citizenship. They influence opinion polls, but hardly make their weight felt electorally because, often on confrontational terms with the French state, many do not vote or register to vote.
“The drop in anti-Semitism in France is mostly true for that part of society which is organized and where the notion of social status exists,” says Camus. “There now also exists a segment of society for which the ‘social elevator’ is stuck, which means that the possibility of advancing and bettering their position no longer exists because of the economic crisis, which is bringing people down hard to very basic issues [employment, rent, pensions, etc.].
“There is a whole slice of the country’s youth, including many of the children of [Muslim] immigrants who basically lack any culture at all. Youngsters of immigrant origin often lack culture based either on the French language or the language of their parents. These people write in ‘text-speak,’ so they don’t have any educational basis which would allow them to understand the Shoah or similar subjects. But it’s not only the children of [Arab] immigrants; you have plenty of ethnic French youths who recognize success only in the context of the Internet,” says Camus.
“Dieudonné’s audience is found among people aged below 30, sometimes very much younger, who don’t yet have any personal judgment of their own,” Camus continues.
“They are attracted to Dieudonné because he talks about subjects that no one else dares talk about, and he is ready to transgress the rules. You don’t make jokes in France about the Shoah but he does.
“It’s not that the old anti-Semitic French extreme right doesn’t exist any longer. It does, but it is very small and forms only a small part of the people attracted, for example, to the National Front. When people vote for the FN, it is because they fear losing their jobs, because of the economic crisis and a loss of personal social status. They fear immigration, especially from Muslim countries, with the subsequent competition from immigrants for job openings. The Jewish question is very secondary to them.
But, if the economic crisis provokes further hardship and a loss of purchasing power by the middle class, there is always a possibility that the Jews will be blamed,” says Camus.
“For the time being, the enemy, as far as FN voters are concerned, are the Muslims.
But, if things get worse, it could be the Jews as well.”
So, oddly, Dieudonné’s audiences include ordinary white French youths, but also extreme-rightist skinheads, ultra-leftist radicals and a significant proportion of French-born children of North African Muslims. There are also some black Africans, apparently not put off by Dieudonné’s on-stage “jokes” – possibly aimed at showing he is evenhanded – according to which Africans are “mostly interested in dancing… Their women have fat asses… And the black population of the French West Indies wants to stay French so they can live off social welfare payments from Paris.”
But especially, according to the Le Monde newspaper, Dieudonné has become a sort of “fellow traveler… an icon” for young French Muslims of Arab origin. “They share the same feeling of being stigmatized and admire Dieudonné’s willingness to challenge society at large,” the newspaper wrote in an analysis. Dieudonné is not Muslim.
“Above all, his aura among young French Muslims is due to his militant anti-Zionism and unwavering support for the Palestinian cause,” Le Monde wrote.
The newspaper quoted social scientist Haoues Seniguer who said, “Dieudonné’s slide from an anti-Zionist stance, which one could describe as rational, into obsessive anti-Semitism in no way bothers Muslim conservatives. One gets the impressions that certain young Muslims born in France are totally divorced from the reality of the extermination of the Jews during World War II.”
There were 614 anti-Semitic incidents reported in France in 2012 (figures for 2013 have yet to be fully compiled), including 177 acts of violence. Jewish community officials estimate that around 95 percent of the acts of violence were perpetrated by young Muslims, many of whom are simultaneously in a state of virtual revolt against French society at large.
Anti-Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, who has been at the forefront of the campaign to stop Dieudonné, said on French Jewish radio, “Minorities in France are very different from those in the US, who are patriotic, respect the American flag and pledge allegiance to it. They assimilate American values even when maintaining their differences and love for their origins.
Minorities in France are the adversaries of France, upon which they want to impose their viewpoints and their way of life.”
DIEUDONNÉ HAS long been a controversial character, taking his “antiZionist” campaigns beyond French borders during visits to Iran, Syria and Libya, where he received encouragement, met state leaders and, according to Valls, received funds. Dieudonné acknowledged such help from an Iranian firm to produce a film entitled “The anti-Semite” (never shown in theaters), after he was warmly received in Tehran by then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was during a visit to the Iranian capital that Dieudonné met the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, whom he hailed as “the leader of world resistance to US imperialism.” Dieudonné has also praised slain terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden.
What sparked the latest Dieudonné hullaballoo? The answer is La Quenelle. A quenelle is an elongated fish dumpling, a gastronomic delicacy from the Nantua Lake region in the Jura Mountains of eastern France. Because of its form, it is sometimes jokingly referred to as a phallic symbol.
Around 2004, Dieudonné created a gesture – an extended right arm in downward salute with the left hand touching the right shoulder – which he dubbed La Quenelle.
He began making the gesture on stage when talking about people he disliked.
The gesture very much resembles – and is intended to resemble – a well-known arm gesture, France’s equivalent to “the finger” in the US. Like La Quenelle, this is a highly vulgar, aggressive gesture, basically intended to mean ‘Go shove this up your ass!’ A court that heard a complaint against Dieudonné over La Quenelle said the gesture indicated sodomy.
As Dieudonné began increasingly singling out Jewish targets in his shows, La Quenelle also began to be seen as a sort of neo-Nazi recognition sign, a sort of Heil Hitler salute in reverse.
Dieudonné, who likes to wallow in obscenities, supported this view when he said during one of his shows, “The idea of slipping my little quenelle all the way up to the deepest end of the asshole of Zionism is one of my most cherished thoughts.”
At the end of December, La Quenelle suddenly went viral on French social media, with dozens of people publishing photos showing them making the gesture, including outside synagogues and Jewish memorials in France. Some even published photos showing themselves smirking alongside unknowing religious Jews at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. One man performed the gesture outside the gates of the Auschwitz death camp in Poland.
A top French black soccer player, Nicolas Anelka, who is a friend of Dieudonné and plays in Britain, was photographed performing it in England after scoring a goal in a match there. Another friend of Dieudonné, French basketball star Tony Parker, who plays for the San Antonio Spurs in Texas, and whose father is AfroAmerican, was also photographed making the gesture. Both apologized, saying they did not know of the anti-Semitic character of their act; but sports authorities in all three countries reacted with embarrassment when the photos became major news.
To make sure everyone got the idea right, a photo was released showed a grinning JeanMarie Le Pen making the gesture inside the chambers of the European parliament.
At about the same time in December, Dieudonné launched his latest one-man stand-up show in Paris called “The Wall,” in which a stone wall separates the stage in two. Making clear the show was again about Jews, Dieudonné said, “On one side of the wall is good, the Wailing Wall, banks, the media, show business, Hollywood, all the shit!On the other side are evil, resistance, revolt, brambles, prickly bushes and rocks.”
During the show, Dieudonné had the audience rocking with laughter when he described an imaginary scene involving Interior Minister Valls, long a friend of French Jews, crawling on his stomach into the office of a Jewish community leader. “Oh come on,” the Jewish leader says to Valls, “you don’t have to stay on your belly when talking to me; you can get on your knees.”
BUT WHERE Dieudonné went too far was when he attacked radio personality Patrick Cohen, who last year publicly suggested Dieudonné was mentally unbalanced and should be ignored by the media. “When I hear Patrick Cohen talking, I tell myself, hmmm, the gas chambers. What a shame,” the stand-up artist quipped. Dieudonné’s jibe was recorded and Cohen’s employer, the powerful state-owned Radio France group, filed charges for incitement to racial hatred, drawing wide media attention.
French President François Hollande personally intervened, condemning the “sarcasm of those who claim to be humorists and are only confirmed anti-Semites.” I call on all representatives of the state to be on alert and inflexible against anti-Semitism.
No one should be able to use a theater for provocation and to promote openly antiSemitic ideas,” he said.
Valls issued an order to prefects (chief government officials in French provinces) to ban forthcoming shows by Dieudonné across France on grounds that they constituted an affront to human dignity and a possible disruption of public order.
Soon after, the authorities said they were launching an investigation into the presumed illegal transfer of 400,000 euros ($546,000) to Cameroon, where one of Dieudonné’s sons owns a company.
A further probe was opened into how Dieudonné had avoided paying 65,000 euros ($89,000) in fines imposed by the courts for his anti-Semitic outbursts on the grounds that he was personally insolvent.
The companies that handle Dieudonné’s activities and own his home and cars are registered in the names of his mother and his wife. Justice Ministry sources told the press that those firms had a turnover of about 1.8 million euros ($2.4 million) last year, including a 230,000 euro ($314,000) profit. Nonetheless, Dieudonné has had no legal personal revenue in recent years, since he is not a paid employee of the firms. The ministry sources said Dieudonné could go to jail if it was proven that he organized his own insolvency. He also owes more than 800,000 euros ($1.1 million) in back taxes for the period 1997-2005.
“Basically, I don’t think Dieudonné has any real political ambitions. He is first and foremost a businessman and his main preoccupation is that of making money,” says Camus.
Dieudonné was born in 1966, in Fontenayaux-Roses, a predominantly white, middleclass Paris suburb. Dieudonné’s white French mother, then a budding sociologist, met and married an African university student. They had a son, Dieudonné, who was a year old when his father left to return home to Africa. The father is now a wellto-do public accountant in the West African state of Cameroon and is not known to have close ties with his son.
Dieudonné was brought up in a virtually entirely white, middle-class milieu, where he was well liked by his classmates and is not known to have endured any acts of racism.
Nonetheless, says Camus, “it is clear that Dieudonné does have a problem of identity.
His black half would like to make his white half pay for slavery, for colonialism and for the very real discriminations suffered by blacks which he did not suffer from at all.
What is incoherent is that his African father is absent from all this, and it is his white mother who participates in the enterprise.”
Dieudonné, who was initially lauded for his acting and writing abilities, began as a professional stand-up comic in the early 1990s as part of a two-man team with a neighborhood friend, Jewish comedian Elie Semoun. In their act, called “Ely and Dieudonné,” there was a particularly popular skit in which Semoun played “Cohen,” a Jew, and Dieudonné played “Bokassa,” a black man. The skit poked fun at racism and they often performed it on television and in nightclubs. Their act broke up in 1997, partly over Semoun’s contention that Dieudonné was cheating him financially.
The two men went their separate ways, but Semoun soon after became a great hit as a solo act while Dieudonné did less well.
During the same year, a comedy film, “Would I Lie to You?” by, and about, French Jews of North African origin hit the screens and became a national blockbuster, drawing millions of spectators. The film developed a cult following and young people repeated some of the key lines of the dialogue as part of their everyday language.
The film also led to several sequels. It brought to French public view one aspect of modern French Jewry – fun-loving, energetic Sephardi Jews who settled in France in the 1960s and were not shy to sport big golden Stars of David jewelry when driving flashy sports cars, i.e. the opposite of traumatized-by-the-Holocaust, Woody Allen-like Ashkenazis.
Semoun and a host of other French Sephardi comedians such as Michel Boujenah, Elie Kakou and Gad Elmaleh – the latter, possibly France’s most popular male comedian today – were in great demand.
DIEUDONNÉ THEN decided that he would make a film about the 17th century slave trade in which France was a major player – buying slaves from local tribal chiefs in West Africa and sending them off to cut sugar cane in the West Indies in horrible conditions. Like many other would-be filmmakers, Dieudonné asked for a loan from the state-run National Cinema Centre (CNC), which seeks to promote quality French-language films. But like 90 percent of applicants, Dieudonné’s proposed script was turned down, purportedly for lack of artistic quality.
Dieudonné went ballistic and accused “the Zionists who control the CNC” of intentionally rejecting his proposed script because France’s Jews did not want films made that would show victims of persecutions other than the Jews. The CNC’s president in the early 2000s, David Kessler, was indeed Jewish and active in progressive left-wing Jewish causes.
Kessler serves today as Hollande’s chief personal adviser on cultural affairs.
Dieudonné says the rejection of his script proposal was what sparked his antagonism against Jews.
Camus tells The Report, “Maybe he should have been helped to make the film, although I heard that the script was very weak. But if someone says he became an anti-Semite only because of a rejection by an institution presided over at one time by a Jew, then I say that he probably already had a natural leaning towards anti-Semitism.”
Going back to the stage, Dieudonné launched into tirades about how the Holocaust alone was recognized as a historical atrocity while black suffering was ignored. “All you have to do is to roll up your sleeve and show a concentration camp number for the money to come rolling in,” he railed.
When Jewish comedian Patrick Timsit called Dieudonné a Nazi, the reply was, “I became a Nazi by farting in my bathtub, whereas Timsit was born Jewish so he’s automatically a genius. But if persecutions start again, he should not ask to hide in my cellar,” proclaimed Dieudonné, instantly attracting an audience of anti-Semites and others drawn by the controversy.
In 2005, Dieudonné said he would stand as a candidate for the French presidential election of 2007, with the support of both ultra-left and extreme-right radicals. He drew media attention during his campaign, including from the courts, when he described the 2006 murder of young Jewish telephone salesman Ilan Halimi by a gang headed by an African Muslim hoodlum as “a Zionist plot.”
But Dieudonné’s bid to stand for election failed because he was unable to garner the 500 signatures of support required from mayors and other elected officials in the country.
In 2012, Dieudonné’s longtime Jewish partner Semoun was asked about his former friend and colleague’s evolution.
“It’s terrible,” Semoun said. “He lives in a world of hatred. For me, his evolution is traumatic because it is as if I had lived all those years alongside a psychopath or a pedophile without knowing it.”