Uproar in France as ‘racist’ comedian banned

Gesture of hate? Dieudonné and Nicolas Anelka perform the controversial ‘quenelle’ sign © PA

Controversial comic Dieudonné M’bala M’bala has had his new show outlawed by the French government after accusations of anti-Semitism. Is the ban justified, or does it make matters worse?

France is a nation divided. On one side stand the forces of the French establishment: the judges and politicians who have worked to outlaw a controversial comedy show from the provocative comedian known as Dieudonné.

One minister condemned what he called Dieudonné’s ‘mechanics of hate’ – he wants to ban the comedian from all further stage appearances and even to remove video of his performances from the internet.

Why is Dieudonné so controversial? Material from his banned show, The Wall, was highly offensive. In one sketch, he pretended to urinate against the Western Wall in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Judaism.

This is not the first time Dieudonné has shown apparent hostility to Jewish people. He has been recorded hinting that he would have liked to see Jewish journalist Patrick Cohen sent to the gas chambers.

Dieudonné is also responsible for popularising an offensive gesture called the ‘quenelle’ after a type of fish dumpling. Critics claim that the gesture is a combination of a well-known obscene arm movement and a Nazi salute.

But despite the controversy, Dieudonné has thousands of loyal fans, especially among the young inhabitants of France’s impoverished suburbs. People living in these dangerous areas are often from immigrant backgrounds, unemployed, under-educated and discriminated against. They feel cut off from mainstream society and exploited or ignored.

Dieudonné is an expert at giving a voice to their anger. As a result, his quenelle gesture has been adopted by many as a simple way of expressing disgust against the establishment. Footballer Nicolas Anelka faced stern criticism after using the quenelle as a goal celebration last month, although he denied having any racist intent.

Dieudonné’s supporters often say they are anti-Zionist (opposed to the state of Israel) rather than anti-Semitic (hostile to Jewish people), but photographs posted online tell a different story. There are pictures of quenelles being performed outside synagogues, beside Jewish cemeteries and even on the way to the Auschwitz death camp. In a country where anti-Semitism has a long history, Dieudonné has given old hatreds a new lease of life.

Silencing hatred

Two years ago in Toulouse, anti-Semitism flared into violence, when a lone gunman killed three Jewish children. It is no surprise then that the government wants to ban anyone who might give even the slightest encouragement to such hate crimes.

But some in France worry that the ban is an unjustified attack on freedom of speech. Anyway, they point out, Dieudonné’s supporters already despise the establishment. This ban will only convince them that Dieudonné is the only person who is really on their side.

You Decide

  1. Do humans have a right to unlimited freedom of speech? If not, what limits should there be?
  2. France has a law which forbids anyone from denying that the Holocaust – the genocide against Jews and others during the second world war – really happened. Is this law a good idea?

Activities

  1. We humans are very good at coming up with offensive gestures. In groups, try to think of human gestures that have the opposite effect: gestures that welcome or praise or comfort, for example. What do you think is the most positive gesture humans can make?
  2. Sadly, comedy is full of racist jokes. On your own, see if you can come up with an anti-racist joke, then share it with the class.

Some People Say...

“Comedians should be allowed to say whatever they like – if it’s funny.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So France has a problem with anti-Semitism?
It isn’t just France. Anti-Semitism is widespread across Europe and the UK. One Jewish person in five reported having recently experienced anti-Semitism in one survey. And of course, anti-Semitism can go hand-in-hand with other sorts of racism too.
Isn’t racism illegal?
Simply having racist opinions is not illegal anywhere. But racist speech can fall foul of different laws. In Britain, the law forbids any speech that incites racial hatred. It also forbids racial harassment and abuse.
What should I do if someone is racist to me?
If you are at school, go to a teacher. Schools are there to protect pupils against racist bullying or discrimination. If someone has racially abused you, the police will be interested too.

Word Watch

Gas chambers
During World War Two, around six million Jewish men, women and children were murdered by the Nazis. Many were killed in special rooms which were flooded with a poison gas called Zyklon B.
Nazi salute
The Nazi salute is a gesture made with the arm raised and palm forward. It is still used by racist and far-right groups to show their support for Nazi ideas of nationalism and racial purity.
Auschwitz
Auschwitz is the most notorious of the death camps used by the German Nazi party for their genocide of the Jews in Europe. Around one million Jews are thought to have died there, along with thousands of gypsies, homosexuals and political prisoners.

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