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French comic banned: Victory for French values?

By Agnès Poirier, political analyst, Special to CNN
January 10, 2014 -- Updated 1631 GMT (0031 HKT)
French controversial humorist Dieudonne Mbala Mbala in Paris on December 13, 2013.
French controversial humorist Dieudonne Mbala Mbala in Paris on December 13, 2013.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The interior ministry adviced to ban a controversial comedian from performing if they deemed public order at risk
  • France may not have a First Amendment, but censorship is not considered lightly, Poirier writes
  • The government is walking a fine line between censorship and the respect of republican values, she says

Editor's note: Agnes Poirier is a French journalist and political analyst who contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and TV in the UK, U.S., France and Italy. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

(CNN) -- It has been some rather strange three weeks in France. Since footballer Nicolas Anelka dedicated a goal to his friend, the controversial French comedian Dieudonné, by doing the comedian's infamous trademark salute, the "quenelle," what some believe is a reverse Nazi salute, during a match for West Bromwich Albion, France has been talking about little else.

It is as if the entire public debate has been hijacked by a comedian who, over the last 15 years, has steadily drifted towards more and more extreme behavior and inflammatory speech. Anelka's gesture suddenly shone the light on a phenomenon that had so far been little known outside France. Now, the world knows that there is more to the "quenelle" than the exquisite dish, a creamy mixture of fish and egg, originated from Lyon, France's gastronomic capital.

Dieudonné, 48, started his career as a comedian in the 1990s, in a duo with Jewish Franco-Moroccan Elie Semoun. They separated in 1997 when Semoun developed a career in cinema. Dieudonné struggled to exist solo and was said to be bitter about his ex-partner's success and fame.

Agnes Poirier
Agnes Poirier

He then entered the realm of French politics, first of all fighting against the extreme right National Front before slowly getting closer to Marine Le Pen's xenophobic party, alongside extremist Islamists. His shows started focusing almost exclusively on his hatred of Israel and Jews. Condemned many times by the French courts for incitement to hatred, Dieudonné publically defended Iran's and the Hezbollah's anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Dieudonne himself, who no longer gives interviews to the mainstream media, denies that his act, or la quenelle, is anti-Semitic. He claims through his legal team to be nothing more than a comedian and the victim of unjustified attacks because he stands up for those who are excluded from French society.

Each time that the manager of a theater in France has refused to let him use their premises for one of his controversial shows, Dieudonné has threatened legal action. Anelka's public gesture has had the merit to prompt French Interior Minister Manuel Valls to action and to look into other aspects of the comedian's personality.

It was revealed that Dieudonné has been quietly investigated for money laundering and tax fraud for more than a year. Valls, interviewed on French radio Europe 1, stated that Dieudonné was trying to declare himself bankrupt in order to avoid paying taxes and fines and that a possible case of money laundering between France and Cameroon was being closely looked at.

However, what has divided France is the interior ministry's advice to the country's prefects to ban the comedian from performing if they deemed public order at risk. Dieudonné, at the beginning of a national tour, thus received his first ban on Thursday morning ahead of a planned performance in Nantes.

His lawyer immediately appealed and an administrative court overturned the ban. The interior minister then appealed to France's highest jurisdiction which decided to uphold the ban on Thursday evening. A similar legal wrangling is expected to take place in every town where Dieudonné is supposed to perform. French President Francois Hollande weighed in the debate, giving all his support to his Interior minister.

So far, France's public opinion and the media have been split over the issue of the ban. France may not have a First Amendment, but censorship is not considered lightly. There may be an understanding that freedom of speech stops where incitement to hatred begins and the French, in their majority, think that Dieudonné has gone much too far. However, is the ban in danger of giving publicity to Dieudonné? His shows are now selling fast.

Others, such as French philosopher Bernard Henry Levy, argue that Dieudonné ceased long ago to be an artist and that his virulent anti-Semitism shouldn't be seen as artistic license: "This is not humor anymore, this is political," he said. And why should Dieudonné be indeed treated differently than Marine Le Pen?

The French government is walking a fine line between censorship and the respect of republican values; it looks however as if it has won the first round against racism.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely hers Agnes Poirier.

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