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French ban on anti-Semitic comic fuels free speech debate

4 min

A decision to ban performances by French comic and convicted anti-Semite Dieudonné M'bala M'bala has been praised as a “victory” by the government, while many say the ban undermines free speech.


In a legal tug-of-war that played out on Thursday, a court in Nantes, western France, overturned a ban the city authorities had imposed on a Dieudonné show due to open its doors that evening.

Hours later the Council of State, France’s highest administrative court, confirmed the city’s prohibition of his comedy act.

The final decision was greeted with boos and jeers by hundreds of the comedian's fans outside the Zenith Theatre in Nantes. More than 5,000 tickets had been sold for the performance, which was to be the second in his planned France-wide tour.

Scorning the Holocaust

Dieudonné, 47, the mixed-race son of a Cameroonian immigrant and a French mother, has been convicted seven times for inciting racial hatred or anti-Semitism in shows in which he has scorned the Holocaust and played up anti-Jewish conspiracy theories.

He also has popularized the “quenelle” hand gesture, which French Interior Minister Manuel Valls has called an “inverted Nazi salute.”

Dieudonné was convicted at the end of 2013 for using the word “Shoananas,” a combination of the Hebrew word for Holocaust and the French word for pineapple.

A song containing the word is seen as deriding Holocaust survivors and victims. Some fans hoping to see Thursday's show carried pineapples.

A French ‘victory’

French President François Hollande’s government was swift to declare the ban a “victory” for France.

“In the face of the mechanics of hate ... we need firmness and determination and great calm,'' Valls said after the Council of State announced its decision.

Valls declared that France had been made stronger by the decision to keep Dieudonné off the stage in Nantes.

“But the combat against the nauseating words of this personality continues,'' he said on the iTélé TV station. “Citizens should not go to these shows.”

Earlier in the week, Hollande told his cabinet: “No one should be able to use this show for provocation and to promote openly anti-Semitic ideas.”

Democracy defeated?

But critics have described the ban as a pyrrhic victory, with many saying that making a martyr of Dieudonné will only strengthen his support and weaken France’s precious freedom of expression.

The last-minute move to ban Dieudonné stand-up show was a “defeat for France”, according to Agnès Tricoire, of the French Human Rights League (LDH).

“This is not a victory for the republic, but a defeat for democracy,” Tricore said on FRANCE 24’s Debate programme, adding that she nevertheless found the comedian’s anti-Semitic declarations “abominable”.

“A democracy does not back down from its fundamental freedoms, from freedom of expression,” she said. “This astonishing decision sets a dangerous precedent. Who else is going to be banned for having a controversial point of view?”

Leading French public law expert Nicolas Garderes agreed that the government had undermined freedom of expression by imposing a pre-emptive ban.

“Laws exist that punish anti-Semitism and incitement to racial hatred,” he said, adding that if Dieudonné were to break these laws during his show, he should be punished after the fact and not before.

Jean-Yves Camus, who is one of France’s most recognised academic experts on the far right, responded: “He’s already been convicted seven times, and been given fines that he has not paid."

“He is operating with a growing sense of impunity. And in the face of that sense of impunity, [the ban] was the only option the interior ministry had left.”

Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala suffered further legal setbacks on Friday, a day after the government succeeded in banning the first of several his shows.

Officials in Paris, Tours and Orleans prohibited the controversial comic's shows from going ahead there.

Lawyers for the comedian -- who goes by his first name -- failed in a bid to have France's highest administrative court, the State Council, overturn the Tours ban. But they vowed they would be back Saturday to try to have the one for Orleans struck down.

The interior ministry has urged local authorities in towns to host his nationwide run of stand-up shows to ban them on public order grounds.

The comic has challenged each ban individually in local courts. And, so far, lost.

(Source: AFP)

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