Anti-establishment comedian to some, anti-Semitic and far-right extremist to others - the name Dieudonné M'bala M'bala is one that provokes strong and often contradictory opinions among the French public.
Known usually by his first name, Dieudonné has been no stranger to controversy throughout a career that began in comedy and acting, but has drifted increasingly into political activism.
Recent events, however, have seen the 47-year-old catapulted to the subject of impassioned debate both at home and abroad. First there was the announcement by French Interior Minister Manuel Valls that he would try to legally ban Dieudonné’s performances, then there was the use of his trademark ‘quenelle’ gesture by French footballer Nicolas Anelka during a football match in the English Premier League – bringing Dieudonné to wider international attention.
But it was not always this way for Dieudonné, whose early career was characterised by strong anti-racist and largely left-wing views, in both his political activism and comedy routines.
Tackling the far right
The Paris-born son of a Cameroonian father and French mother, he first began writing and performing in the 1990s with his childhood friend, Jewish comedian and actor Élie Semoun, and their sketches tackled such issues as everyday racism and discrimination in France.
Twice he stood in elections as a left-wing candidate taking on the far-right National Front party, once in 1997 and again a year later.
Both times he lost. Undeterred, he announced his intention to stand for the leftist “Utopistes” party in the 2002 presidential election, but ultimately failed to win the necessary sponsorships to run.
So what pushed this staunch anti-racist opponent of the far-right to so dramatically alter his views?
Perhaps there was an early hint of what was to come when campaign literature for his failed presidential bid appeared to accuse the French state of “double standards” in reparations paid to descendants of Jews deported during the Second World War, but not to the descendants of African slaves.
This perceived injustice may be what later morphed Dieudonné’s political identity from a defender of the underprivileged and black rights to an outspoken critic of Israel and Jews in general.
In a 2002 interview with Lyon Capitale magazine, he described “the Jews” as “a sect, a fraud” and claimed that “racism was invented by Abraham”.
The following year he made a now infamous appearance on French TV when, dressed as an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, he gave a Nazi salute while shouting "Isra-heil!".
He went on to adopt the popular anti-Semitic claim of a Jewish conspiracy operating in the upper echelons of politics, business and the media, while at the same time portraying the Jewish people as claiming some sought of “monopoly” on suffering at the expense of other minorities, particularly blacks.
“The Zionists have perverted the values of the Republic so that only the suffering of the Jews is recognised officially, not, for instance, the suffering of blacks through the slave trade” he told Britain’s Independent newspaper in 2006.
Joining the far right
Though Dieudonné has attempted to portray his position as anti-Zionist, rather than anti-Semitic, over the years his ‘comedy’ routines and political statements have become increasingly outrageous.
His critics also point to the political company he now keeps as further evidence of his far-right beliefs.
In 2006, Dieudonné made a surprise visit to the National Front's annual fair and shortly afterwards he invited holocaust denier Robert Faurisson on stage at the Main d'Or theatre he owns in Paris.
He has developed a close friendship with National Front party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is godfather to one of his children.
His trademark gesture, the “quenelle”, which involves pointing the right arm straight down and touching that arm with the left hand, has been described by critics as a modified Nazi salute.
Last week, Dieudonné said of a prominent Jewish journalist: "Me, you see, when I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I think to myself: 'Gas chambers ... too bad (they no longer exist)."
But despite the controversy, or perhaps rather because of it, Dieudonné’s popularity is unquestionable: his shows at his Paris theatre are nearly always sold out and his YouTube videos garner millions of hits.
This has led some critics to claim Dieudonné’s extreme views are motivated by money.
Others believe it is a deliberate ploy to raise his profile with a view to moving full-time into politics, using anti-Semitism to win support from various disaffected groups in France.
“How does he please the nationalist extreme right as much as recently immigrated populations ...?,” asked Sociologist Michel Wieviorka in an opinion piece in Thursday's Le Monde.
“The paradox is resolved (via) anti-Semitism, which ... brings together people that otherwise are separated by everything.”
Date created : 2014-01-04