French leaders have a problem: Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. The controversial comedian has been lambasted by the right and left alike for the anti-Semitic tone of his one-man shows and, as of Monday, is under criminal investigation for incitement to racial hatred. Interior Minister Manuel Valls announced over the weekend that the Elysée is seeking a way to ban the comedian’s shows all together. (Dieudonné, as he is commonly known, is set to debut a national tour on January 9.)
Long a contentious figure, the French comedian with Cameroonian roots has aroused heated debate in recent weeks thanks to the explosive proliferation of his “quenelle” gesture, which combines an upside-down Nazi salute with an obscene hand movement. (Dieudonné maintains the “quenelle” is not racist, but rather an anti-establishment symbol.) On Saturday, French soccer player Nicolas Anelka made the gesture during a match, joining a handful of other celebrities, such as NBA player Tony Parker, soccer player Samir Nasri and comedian Arnaud Tsamère, who have made the quenelle in public to a wide media backlash.
The displays of support from some of France’s most prominent professional athletes cap off a year that has seen the nation nudged, at times forcefully, to the right. Marine Le Pen’s extreme-right Front National (FN) party has made unprecedented gains and is expected to make a strong, and potentially game-changing, showing at next year’s municipal and European elections.
The FN’s ascent comes amidst a broader conversation about the normalization of racist rhetoric in national politics, thanks notably to comments by a FN member comparing justice minister Christiane Taubira to a monkey in November — and the unsettling pause before President Francois Hollande’s administration denounced the statements. (True to form, Dieudonné jumped into the fray, releasing a YouTube video stating, “Yeah, you can call her a bonobo . . . why not?”)
Now, Dieudonné’s growing popularity – and his unabashed promotion of the quenelle – has the Elysée on its toes and, judging from Valls’ fighting words, eager to get rid of him. In this self-proclaimed bastion of civil liberties, however, that will prove easier said than done. Although Dieudonné has been fined nine times for hate speech and defamation, the country’s broad laws on freedom of assembly make it difficult for officials to ban his live shows. Nonetheless, Valls is preparing instructions for municipal authorities to ban any public assemblies (such as Dieudonné’s shows) that threaten to disrupt the public order.
The move’s future efficacy — and legitimacy — is debatable. For now, celebrity fans notwithstanding, Dieudonné remains a fringe personality, albeit one gunning for a political career. Once a fervent critic of the far right, he has since done an impressive 180° spin, running for the European Parliament in 2009 on an anti-Zionist platform and cozying up to FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. But with an unsteady France in the midst of a rightward lurch, the danger for Hollande’s government here lies in making a martyr of Dieudonné — and lending credence to his so-called anti-establishment stance. By potentially circumventing the law, Valls, with Hollande’s backing, is preparing to do just that.