News / Arts & Entertainment

French Comic Stirs Outrage for Anti-Semitic Gesture

FILE - French comedian Dieudonne M'bala M'bala at the French Interior Ministry in Paris, May 13, 2009.
FILE - French comedian Dieudonne M'bala M'bala at the French Interior Ministry in Paris, May 13, 2009.
Lisa Bryant
— Authorities in France are moving to bar performances of a controversial comedian for his anti-Semitic remarks and a gesture he invented that Jewish groups liken to a Nazi salute. Anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial are sensitive issues in France, which is haunted by its wartime past - and by more recent attacks on the country's Jewish community. But, the issue is not so simple.
 
Sacha Reingewirtz hears the song on the streets sometimes. It's called Shoah Nanas - or Holocaust Pineapples. It went viral on the Internet not so long ago - one of many jabs against Jews by 46-year-old French comic, Dieudonné M'bala M'bala.

"A lot of people are frightened. I'm talking especially about Jewish students. When they hear people singing the songs about the Holocaust that Dieudonné created, this is for them very offensive, very frightening," said Reingewirtz.

Dieudonné - who goes only by his first name - is stirring fresh controversy these days with another creation: a straight-armed gesture he calls the quenelle. The word is usually associated with a regional fish dish. The quenelle gesture has been flashed on football fields and in mocking photos snapped outside Jewish institutions.

Dieudonné says it's anti-establishment, not anti-Semitic. But Jewish groups liken it to a Nazi salute.

Now, as the French government tries to crack down on Dieudonné, it is confronting a raft of challenges, from traditional free speech concerns to an arguably new brand of anti-Semitism. Even if the government stops the comic's performances in theaters - which it's trying to do - Dieudonné draws a massive audience in cyberspace.

"The Internet offers a springboard for Dieudonné and his supporters. And you often see on YouTube, for instance, Dieudonné's videos being viewed by over two million users. And this is phenomenal," Reingewirtz said.

French officials appear to be winning the first round. As Dieudonné begins a national tour this week, several municipalities have banned the comic from performing his one-man show, following a government call to do so on public order grounds. Authorities are also investigating him for suspected money laundering.

On Tuesday, French President Francois Hollande urged local authorities to abide by the ban.

Ii is important to be vigilant and inflexible against racism and anti-Semitism, which are humiliating and discriminatory and could disrupt public order," Hollande said.

Jewish leaders like Roger Cukierman, president of the Jewish umbrella organization CRIF, hail the government's swift action.

"The atmosphere that Dieudonné prepares contributes to violence, undoubtedly," he said. "Because it spreads, in the minds of weak people, hatred for the Jews. And from hate you go to violence."

But critics say the government is going too far. Dieudonné's lawyers are threatening legal action. Others, like sociologist Michel Wieviorka, believe authorities and the media are overreacting.

"The government is fighting against Dieudonné. But you don't need a 10-ton big machine to fight against a fly," he said. "So there is a lot of excess, a lot of discourse. And this is also highly political. Because in this situation, I think the government also wants absolutely to be clear with the Jewish political audience."

France faces municipal elections in March, and Hollande and his governing Socialists are not very popular.

Dieudonne's quenelle has traveled far beyond his shows. Sports figures like French soccer player Nicolas Anelka and basketball star Tony Parker have made the gesture. Both have since apologized, saying they didn't realize what it suggested.

Other people have snapped photos of themselves signaling quenelles in front of Holocaust sites and a school in Toulouse where several Jews were gunned down in 2012.

Wieviorka says Dieudonné's fans represent a melting pot.

"At the same time, you would have people saying they love Dieudonné, some of them being nationalist, extreme right, Catholic and so on. French, very French. And some others being immigrants, not necessarily French, and very critical of the French idea of a nation," he said.

Wieviorka believes they reflect a new brand of anti-Semitism in France.

"This new anti-Semitism is not saying that Jews are destroying the French nation. The problem of the people who hate Jews today is not to promote the French nation," he said. "This new anti-Semitism is much more saying that Jews are hostile to Arabs, to Muslims, to Islam."

But Dieudonné defies easy stereotypes. Born in Paris to a Cameroonian father and French mother, he earned fame in the 1990s as a double act with a Jewish comedian and childhood friend. The two later fell out, and Dieudonné became close to the far-right. He says he embraces anti-Zionism, rather than anti-Semitism.

Fans praise Dieudonné's skits, which also skewer Muslims and homosexuals. They say it's a comic's right to make fun of sensitive subjects.

But Jewish student union leader Reingewirtz, sees nothing funny about Dieudonné.

"What we see with Dieudonné is that he's using very old stereotypes. He's talking about Jews manipulating the world, manipulating finance," he said. "So he's using new forms of expression via the Internet, but his argument is just a very classic type of anti-Semitism."

At a time when many French are worried about the economy and jobs, Reingewirtz says, Diedonne is blaming the Jews for their problems. And that, he says, appears to be resonating in France.

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