Last January one could not switch on a French TV station, read a French newspaper, or have a conversation with a French person without the name of French comedian, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, coming up. Even amongst Cambridge’s French student community, all our gatherings that month ended in heated discussions of what had become known as the Dieudonné Affair.
Dieudonné was at the centre of French media attention because on 6 January 2014, Manuel Valls, Minister of the Interior at the time, sent a letter to the state’s representatives in the provinces (the Préfets) advising them to prevent Dieudonné from touring the country with his latest show. Valls accused the show of posing a threat to public order and of inciting hatred. The decision to ban the show was accepted three days later by France’s supreme court for administrative justice (the Conseil d’Etat) after a hastily convened exceptional meeting, and in contradiction to a decision by the court of Nantes made a few hours earlier, which deemed the show legal. This decision triggered a nationwide debate over the legitimacy of the minister’s actions and the nature of Dieudonné’s humour. Just a few days later, however, Dieudonné was able to tour the country with a modified version of his show. The updated act omitted a passage where Dieudonné expressed regret that French Jewish journalist, Patrick Cohen, had not perished in a Nazi gas chamber.
The second event which brought Dieudonné to the fore was French football superstar Nicolas Anelka’s decision to perform the quenelle gesture after scoring a goal for his English Premier League team, West Bromwich Albion, on 28 December 2013. The gesture, which resembles a reversed Nazi-salute, was created by Dieudonné as an elaborate “finger” to Zionism, and later to the establishment as a whole. It had gained popularity in previous months, after Dieudonné published photos on his website of anonymous members of his public, as well as soldiers, policemen and firemen doing the gesture, mainly in places of Jewish significance, including Auschwitz and the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. Anelka, who received a five-match ban for his actions, claimed on Twitter that the gesture was a sign of support for his friend Dieudonné, who was, he claimed, the victim of unjust persecution in France.
Who is Dieudonné?
One of the main reasons the ban triggered such heated debate, and indeed why it was enacted in the first place, is that Dieudonné is one of France’s most famous comedians. He has been hailed by many, including those who reject his current views, as one of France’s greatest. He started his career in a comedy duo with French Jewish comedian Elie Semoun. In their shows, Elie and Dieudonné made fun of their respective backgrounds (Dieudonné’s mother is from Brittany and his father is Cameroonian), the stereotypes attached to them, and the tensions between their communities. Dieudonné then embarked on a solo career, and quickly became ubiquitous in the world of French comedy, featuring in blockbuster films such as Asterix et Obelix Mission Cleopatre. Initially, he was a supporter of established anti-racist movements and spoke publicly against Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the France’s far-right National Front party.
Yet in the early 2000s, Dieudonné distanced himself from these anti-racist movements and developed a fixation on what he saw as disproportionate and negative “Jewish influence” in France. Invited as a guest-star on a popular French talk-show in 2003, Dieudonné performed a sketch in which he depicted an Israeli settler, dressed as an orthodox Jew and wearing an explosive belt, shouting “convert yourself like me. Join the axis of good, the Americano-Zionist axis, that will offer you many opportunities”, and concluding the act with a gesture that resembled a Nazi-salute, followed by the cry “Isra-heil”. Following the act, Dieudonné was sued, unsuccessfully, by French anti-racist and Jewish organizations for racial defamation, and received much public opprobrium, which resulted in his eclipse from TV and radio shows, lasting to this day. After the scandal, Dieudonné multiplied his provocative and hateful statements against what he called the “organized Jewish community” and its leaders, claiming, for example, that his Jewish critics were former slave-traders reinvented as bankers, in a 2004 interview for the Journal du Dimanche. He also associated himself with far-right politicians, asking Jean-Marie Le Pen to become his daughter’s godfather -which the latter accepted- and developing a close friendship with Alain Soral, a far-right ideologue and Le Pen’s former speechwriter. In one of his shows at the Zenith (one of Paris’s largest concert venues) he invited Robert Faurisson, a famous Holocaust denier, to join him on stage to receive the prize of political incorrectness (infréquentabilité) from the hands of a man dressed in Nazi concentration camp pyjamas, eliciting a standing ovation from the audience. Despite many condemnations for Holocaust denial (which has been a crime in France since 1990) and for racial defamation, Dieudonné continues to perform his shows in a venue he rents out, the Theatre de la Main d’Or in Paris, on tour, and on videos he releases regularly, which typically receive millions of views within a few hours.
French commentators have tried to understand why Dieudonné developed such an obsession with so-called “Jewish influence”, and why millions of his followers are ready to view, attend and applaud his shows and videos, which are filled with explicit anti-Semitic content. Such commentators, including French historian Jean-Paul Gautier, author of the book La galaxie Dieudonné (Syllepse, 2011), have explained the phenomenon mainly by tracing its roots back to France’s perennial failure to integrate its ethnic minorities, as well as to the country’s dire economic prospects. This analysis is backed by statistics indicating that the Liste Anti-Sioniste (the anti-Zionist ticket), of which Dieudonné was a figurehead during the 2009 European elections, achieved its highest electoral rates in France’s most economically marginalized areas. The socio-economic marginalization of a part of Dieudonné’s audience helps to explain the appeal of his paranoid diatribes against the Jewish community, which he portrays as responsible for most of the country’s -and the world’s- problems. As with most conspiracy theories, attributing the blame for complex problems to a specific set of culprits provides an easy solution to the problems at stake -i.e. the elimination of the conspirators from positions of influence- and avoids having to accept any burden of responsibility for these problems. However, France is not the only country in Europe to suffer from inter-communal tensions, or from the effects of the most recent economic crisis. After all, London had its riots too. Why, then, has there been no Dieudonné Affair in Britain? To understand properly why the Dieudonné Affair took place and what it can tell us about contemporary French society, attention must be paid to its specific French context.
As historians often remark, contingency –that is, a certain degree of chance- can often play an important part in explaining why certain events took place. It may sound obvious, but the Dieudonné Affair would not have taken place without Dieudonné. Indeed, it seems unlikely that shows and videos filled with anti-Semitic comments, and starring Holocaust deniers, would have attracted millions of viewers in France today had Dieudonné not decided to endorse such causes. No other French performer of Dieudonné’s stature has held openly anti-Semitic views of the same intensity and exposed them with the same relentlessness as Dieudonné, nor have any popular performers –with the notable exception of Anelka- shown support for the comedian recently. Most people who continue to watch his videos or attend his shows were already fans of Dieudonné before his anti-Semitic obsession came out in the open, and many claim to enjoy his productions because they are performances by a man whose charisma and comic talent they admire, rather than because of the shows’ ideological content.
Part of the reason why Dieudonné started to fill his productions with anti-Semitic remarks, and why certain people may share his views, can be located in France’s memorial politics. In a 2004 interview, Dieudonné claimed that his current views on the Jewish community started to form after applying unsuccessfully for funding for a documentary on the slave trade. One of his main lines of attack against the Jewish community is that it has a “monopoly of suffering”, which, combined with the power of its institutions, has enabled the Jewish community to reap many benefits from the state, notably, according to him, successive French governments’ unconditional support for the state of Israel. In his opinion, moreover, because it relies so much on being perceived as the greatest victim of history, the French Jewish community prevents any other group that has been victim of state persecution or injustice from receiving retribution or even recognition.
It is true that in recent years, thanks to the tireless efforts of certain prominent figures in the French Jewish community, the French state has multiplied initiatives to raise awareness about the Holocaust. This began in 1995 with President Jacques Chirac’s unprecedented recognition of the French state’s responsibility in the rounding-up and deportation of around 70,000 Jews to Nazi concentration and death camps, and culminated in President Sarkozy’s still-born proposal that French schoolchildren should each be given the name of a French child who perished in the Holocaust and should learn their story. It is also true that in comparison to the Holocaust, other instances of state persecution perpetrated against specific ethnic groups, such as the slave trade or colonial wars, have received little coverage in the media, or in school curriculums. But Dieudonné’s argument that this discrepancy is due to the actions of leaders of the Jewish community, or a Jewish lobby, who prevent other ethnic minorities from receiving recognition for their suffering, is unsubstantiated.
Firstly, the French state has started to recognize officially other persecutions, such as the slave trade, which was officially classified as a crime against humanity in 2001 and made a compulsory topic in schools. Secondly, it took a long time for the French state to publicly admit its responsibility in the Holocaust. This period of time, which gave the state a critical distance from the events, has probably not yet elapsed in the case of other state injustices, such as colonialism and the wars of decolonisation in particular. Finally, the Jewish community has a long history of institutional activity in France, meaning that Jewish organizations over the years have amassed the experience, funds, and contacts necessary to organize successful awareness-raising campaigns. This is in sharp contrast to more recently settled minorities, such as first, second, or third-generation immigrants from former French colonies, which have not yet developed institutions capable of representing their specific grievances efficiently on a national scale.
The French state’s censorious tendencies
Another reason for Dieudonné’s gradual radicalization, and for his popularity, is the French state’s treatment of hate speech and Holocaust denial. Dieudonné regularly claims he is a victim of state and media censorship: he was first banned, tacitly, from TV and radio shows, and now, officially, from touring the country. He is able to exploit this “victimization” to portray himself as the defender of free speech from state censorship, and hence attract a wider pool of supporters. However, what emerged from the fact that Dieudonné was able to tour the country with a modified version of his show less than two weeks after the ban, was that the state was not censoring a comedian or a show, but specific statements.
However, the French state has a longer history of censoring hate speech. Laws have been passed making it a crime in France to deny the Holocaust, and recently, the Armenian genocide (though the latter bill was rejected by the Constitutional Council in 2012). Many French historians and public intellectuals have criticized these measures as giving precedent for state-censorship of unpopular opinions, state-control of the historical record, and for limiting academic freedom. Pierre Nora, a French historian of Jewish origin, has spearheaded the protests against the memorial laws with his association Liberté Pour l’Histoire.
It is important not to give Holocaust denial a fertile environment in which to thrive. Holocaust denial is not only a distortion of the historical record, harmful to our understanding of the past and disrespectful to victims, but is also used as a means of defaming the Jewish community, by accusing Jews of deceit and manipulation on a mass scale. However, the blanket censorship of any historical work capable of casting doubt on the chronology, scale, or impact of the Holocaust does not seem sensible. As was demonstrated in the Dieudonné Affair, such censorship gives Holocaust deniers an opportunity to portray themselves as defenders of free speech, without even preventing the dissemination of their ideas, which are easily accessible on the internet. Countries in which Holocaust denial is not a crime have nonetheless succeeded in fighting it. One example is the libel lawsuit that the notorious Holocaust denier, David Irving, filed in the English courts against Deborah Lipstadt who he accused of wrongfully alleging that he had resorted to distortions of evidence in his works. Richard Evans, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University, who was asked to be an expert witness in the case, claimed in his book Telling lies about Hitler, that the trial was successful in proving that Irving had deliberately manipulated the evidence in his works on the Holocaust, and in raising awareness of the wealth of evidence attesting the reality of the Holocaust. Filing libel suits, on a case-by-case basis, against Holocaust deniers for their defamatory implications -that previous historians have lied about the Holocaust- seems a more effective way of combating them.
Censorious tendencies towards Dieudonné were not displayed solely by the state. At the height of the Affair, most French politicians and public intellectuals refused to engage directly with the arguments put forward by Dieudonné. Instead, they simply latched adjectives onto his views, calling them “odious”, “offensive”, “criminal” and so on. Their position is understandable. They believe that engaging with Dieudonné’s anti-Semitic allegations amounts to a recognition that they are legitimate –albeit incorrect. However, when they are supported by millions of people, these views have already gained popular legitimacy, and so rebuttals using arguments of authority are ineffective; public figures instead do need to expose their logical flaws. The list of examples invalidating Dieudonné’s claims about the power of French Jewish institutions is endless –the number of complaints filed on a regular basis by French Jews against French public TV channels for their coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict alone should dispel the myth of the Jews’ control of the media.
Part of the reason why Dieudonné’s anti-Semitic views are popular in France is the French population’s ignorance about Judaism. Everyone seems to know who is Jewish, but most are ignorant of what it actually means to be Jewish –or Zionist (the two terms are used interchangeably by Dieudonné and his supporters). Of course, the part of Dieudonné’s followers –including perhaps Dieudonné himself- who want to believe in the Jewish community’s evil influence on world events would be oblivious to rational arguments, but the current ignorance about the Jewish community and its supposed power, maintained by the position of French public intellectuals, no doubt encourages viewers to accept Dieudonné’s allegations uncritically.
A veiled attack on assimilation
Commentators have also found it remarkable that Dieudonné is able to bring together, in his audiences, both French people of immigrant origin and far-right xenophobes. They have explained the strange union with the suggestion that Dieudonné provides both groups with the only thing they have in common: anti-Semitism. But in fact these two groups share more than that; their other common concern, assimilation, is also echoed in Dieudonné’s shows. Dieudonné’s shows and interviews make fun of regional identities and religions and celebrate the French model of secular assimilation, which demands that all citizens abandon foreign or regional languages and customs in public to embrace a unique and centrally defined model of French identity, including language, education, calendar and dress, as the only one capable of realizing a true “miscegenation” (métissage) of its citizens. What he accuses the French Jewish community of, above all, is betraying that model of assimilation by behaving in a ”tribal” manner, with its host of Jewish schools, synagogues, institutions and networks of power defending their special interests at the expense of those of the nation as a whole.
This is paradoxical on many levels. Traditionally, pre-war French anti-Semites, like Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras, portrayed Jews as the principal advocates of assimilation, through which they were able to secure emancipation and integration, and accused them of using this secularism to uproot the French from their Catholic heritage. Moreover, much of Dieudonné’s core audience despises assimilation. French people from immigrant backgrounds feel they are forced to abandon ancestral traditions –such as wearing religious signs, like the headscarf, in public spaces. Traditional far-right supporters feel that they too have to abandon ancestral traditions, such as regional dialects and Catholicism, in order to espouse a globalised, soulless identity. Yet, by ostensibly showing that assimilation’s traditional advocates have fallen short of the principles they claimed to defend, and that Jews have in fact used the guise of assimilation to advance their particular interests, Dieudonné and his supporters are able to attack indirectly a system of national integration they hate.
Thus the Dieudonné Affair may reveal not so much the French people’s unanimous hatred of the Jews, but a widespread dissatisfaction with the French model of secular assimilation, displaced into an attack on the French Jewish community. That displacement is explained by a mixture of intellectual laziness (a propensity to buy-into conspiracy theories to evade responsibility for contemporary problems); ignorance about Judaism, not helped by the intellectual and political élite who refuse to publicly debunk anti-Semitic arguments; the traditional image of French Jews as defenders of assimilation; and finally non-Jewish minorities’ envy of French Jews’ ostensibly successful –and uncompromising, therefore unfair- integration.