Comedian Runs Afoul Of France's Strict Laws On Hate Speech
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French police raided the Paris offices and home of a controversial comedian today. The comedian is known by his stage name of Dieudonne, he's been accused of making anti-Semitic remarks during his performances, although he denies that. The French government has banned his current show, sparking a debate in France about the limits of free speech.
More from Paris and from NPR's Eleanor Beardsley.
DIEUDONNE M'BALA M'BALA: (Foreign language spoken)
M'BALA: (Foreign language spoken)
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Forty-seven-year-old Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala, who goes by the stage name of Dieudonne, has been performing since the 1990s. When he began, his posture was largely anti-racist and left wing, until around 2002.
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: And then, very slowly, he started to drift.
BEARDSLEY: That's Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the far right. He says Dieudonne, whose mother is white and French and whose father is from Cameroon and black, never explained the change.
National Front Party founder Jean Marie Le Pen is his child's godfather. And Dieudonne ran unsuccessfully for a parliament seat on a right wing ticket. His crude, stand-up comedy shows focus overwhelmingly now on Jews, says Jean-Yves Camus.
CAMUS: He believes in a world Jewish conspiracy. And he says that the Jews control the media, the economy and the political party. And also, he became a Holocaust denier.
BEARDSLEY: Dieudonne has been fined several times over the last few years for hate speech, which is illegal in France. He's never paid the fines, always claiming bankruptcy. The comedian says he is anti-Zionist and anti-establishment, but not anti-Semitic. His shows say otherwise.
M'BALA: (Singing in foreign language)
BEARDSLEY: He regularly performs a song called "Shoahnanas," which combines the word Shoah, or Holocaust, with the French word for pineapple - annanas. Last week, YouTube banned the song. He also invented an arm gesture which has gone viral on the Internet and looks like an inverted Nazi salute. Dieudonne says the gesture simply rejects authority.
The tipping point came in December when Dieudonne laughingly evoked to the gas chambers when talking about a French Jewish journalist he despised. Interior Minister Manuel Valls went after the comic with a vengeance.
MANUEL VALLS: (Through translator) I know how to distinguish between a genius of humor and a purveyor of hate. The words used by Mr. Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala are clearly words of hate and it's not the first time. We must react.
BEARDSLEY: France's highest court has banned Dieudonne's current show. That has set off a debate about censorship and free speech. Outside Dieudonne's tiny Paris theatre, fans such as 28-year-old Abdel Benhada, were furious.
ABDEL BENHADA: (Through translator) He doesn't incite people to hatred. It's just humor. He makes jokes about everybody. It's not a problem for other groups.
BEARDSLEY: Lawyer Arnaud Klarsfeld, whose parents helped track down Nazis after the war, says he doesn't believe France is anti-Semitic, but he says there are small groups who incite people to hate Jews.
ARNAUD KLARSFELD: Those are not shows. Those are political meetings comparable to the meetings held by the Hamas or by the Hezbollah. So you have to act. You have to act because things have already happened in France.
BEARDSLEY: Klarsfeld is referring to the killing of three Jewish schoolchildren and their teacher in the city of Toulouse, two years ago, by a young radical Islamist.
CAMUS: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Jean-Yves Camus says Dieudonne's biggest audience is young males of Arab and African descent. They don't necessarily have the same cultural references about what happened in Europe during the Second World War. And he says, for some of them, laughing at Jews or the Holocaust is not a taboo.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)