Let’s be clear: The French comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, at the heart of a contemporary storm about anti-Semitism, is a bigot. But the fact that he is a bigot does not mean that all his supporters are, nor that he should be banned. The debate about Dieudonné exposes much of the confusion and blindness that pervades contemporary politics.
The latest controversy over the comedian began after the footballer Nicolas Anelka celebrated a goal with the ‘quenelle’, a hand gesture popularised by Dieudonné that merges an ‘inverted’ Nazi salute with the bras d’honneur, a traditional, insulting French hand signal, which means, roughly speaking, ‘up yours’. For some the quenelle is an expression of hatred for the system, for others it is an anti-Semitic taunt. In reality it is both, and Dieudonné’s success rests on his ability to merge the two.
Dieudonné began his career as a satirical, somewhat surreal, often combative, but relatively mainstream, observer of French society, and in particular of its racial and ethnic mores. His original double-act partner was a Jewish comedian Elie Semoun. Over the past decade, however, Dieudonné’s show has become far darker, increasingly obsessed by Jews. In Dieudonné new worldview, not only are Jews responsible for much of the torment of black people but their success in playing the victim card has also diverted attention from the real sufferings of blacks. He has in words of the journalist John Lichfield turned from being a ‘French Lenny Henry’ to a ‘French Louis Farrakhan’.
In perhaps his most infamous routine, Dieudonné invites the notorious revisionist historian and Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson on stage, to receive a spoof award for ‘social unacceptability and insolence’ from an actor dressed up to look like a concentration camp inmate and wearing a yellow star. The stagehand says that he was made to wear the outfit simply for the show. ‘No you fool’, Dieudonné responds, ‘you’re wearing it because you were in Belsen, it was obligatory!’ For Dieudonné, Holocaust victims are pretend figures, and social concern about the Holocaust is stage-managed.
The sketch is in keeping with the tenor of much of his current work. In another routine he mocks the Jewish-French philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy who, in haggling with a street seller, asks: ‘How can you ask me to pay so much when six million of us died in the Holocaust?’ He has talked of the Holocaust as providing ‘memorial pornography’ for Jews. He blames Jews for the slave trade and hence for black oppression. ‘In my children’s school books’, he declared in a radio interview, ‘I rip out the pages on the Shoah. I will continue to do so long as our pain is not recognized’.
The popularity of Dieudonné rests on his ability to play on and to fuse many of the themes that have become so corrosive of contemporary politics, and not just in France: a contempt for mainstream politics and politicians, a sense of voiclessness and abandonment, particularly in France in the banlieues, a perception of a world out of control and driven by malign forces, victimhood as a defining feature of social identity, a willingness to believe in conspiracy theories, and the growth of new forms of anti-Semitism, particularly on the left and among youth of North African origin. The reason that the ‘quenelle’ has become so popular is that it embodies in a single gesture many of these contemporary themes. It has become for many an expression of hatred for the system. ‘The meaning of quenelle is anti-system’, claimed Anelka after the furore broke over his goal celebration. ‘I do not know what religion has to do with this story’.
But what does it mean to say that one hates ‘the system’? In an age in which progressive social movements have largely crumbled, and in which there is widespread disenchantment with very idea of collective social transformation, people’s political anger often finds expression not through opposition to a particular policy or a government or even to capitalism, but through a generalized hatred of everything and everyone in power.
Such indiscriminate anger is not just politically incoherent; it is also potentially reactionary. Inchoately kicking out against the system can all too easily mutate into indiscriminately striking out against the ‘Other’. Anti-politics has laid the ground for the melding of ‘radicalism’ and bigotry. Contempt for mainstream politics, and a sense of the political elite ignoring the views of ordinary folk, underlies much current hostility to immigration and to Muslims. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are, of course, different. They possess a deeper history and a greater purchase on the imagination. Contemporary anti-Semitism draws upon that unique history and consciousness. But it is not merely a reworking of traditional themes; it draws upon the same anti-political themes that fuel other conspiracy theories today.
Over the past decade Dieudonné has found a new double act partner, not on stage but in politics. Alain Soral was once a member of the Communist Party, who subsequently joined the far-right Front National, becoming a member of its central committee, before leaving in 2009 to set up with Dieudonné the Parti antisioniste (Anti-Zionist party). Dieudonné – the man who believes in a grand racist conspiracy against black people – has himself flirted with the FN; Jean-Marie Le Pen was in fact the godfather to one of his children.
Soral’s journey from Stalinist left to fascist right, and the ‘antiracist’ Dieudonné’s closeness to Le Pen, not only express the confusion that pervades much of oppositional politics, but shows too that what drives such opposition is less any form political judgment than the desire to throw an anti-political tantrum. We should not overplay the political influence of a figure like Dieudonné. When he ran as a Parti antisioniste candidate in the 2009 European elections, he gained just 1.3 per cent of the vote. What we should worry about are the trends of which he is an expression and of which, in France, the FN has been the greatest beneficiary.
If the fusion of anti-Semitic and anti-system sentiment throws light on one aspect of contemporary politics, the debate about whether Dieudonné should be censored illuminates another. Over the past decade Dieudonné has been in and out the courtroom on a series of charges of inciting racial hatred and defaming Jewish figures and organizations. He has been fined at least nine times, including for the Faurisson sketch, for which he was convicted of ‘the public insult of people of Jewish faith or origin’, for characterizing Jews as slave traders, and for mocking the Holocaust.
Even before the Anelka incident the French Interior Ministry had announced that it was considering ‘all legal means’ to ban Dieudonné from making any more public appearances. In the wake of Anelka’s quenelle goal celebration, the campaign to silence Dieudonné has greatly intensified. On 6 January, the Interior Minister Manuel Valls sent to all local mayors and prefects of police a three-page memo entitled ‘The Struggle Against Racism and Anti-Semitism – demonstrations and public reaction – performances by Mr. Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala’. ‘The struggle against racism and anti-Semitism’, Valls wrote, ‘is an essential concern of government and demands vigorous action’ and asked mayors and prefects to ban the comedian on the grounds of ‘a grave disturbance of public order’. Many complied. When a local court overturned a ban in Nantes, where Dieudonné was due to play, Valls appealed to the nation’s highest court, the Conseil d’Etat, which promptly reinstated it.
The attempt to drive Dieudonné offstage is deeply misguided, both as a matter of principle and from a pragmatic point of view. ‘Freedom of expression is sacred’, claimed the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy in a radio interview. But, he continued, Dieudonné’s ideas constitute ‘such an aggression against the content and basis of the idea of the Republic that there is no other way than to forbid [his show].’ Free speech, in other words, is sacred only so long as it is acceptable to liberal republicans like Levy; but it does not extend to those who are hostile to the ideals of the Republic. This is to eviscerate the meaning of free speech. To talk of freedom of expression for everyone but bigots is to hollow out the principle. It is precisely figures such as Dieudonné who truly test the mettle of our attachment to free speech.
In any case, you cannot in practice challenge bigotry by banning it. You simply let the sentiments fester underground. As Milton once memorably put it, ‘To keep out evil doctrine by licensing is like the exploit of that gallant man who sought to keep out crows by shutting his park gate.’ Banning Dieudonné will not remove the reasons for which people support him. It will not erase the contempt for mainstream politics and politicians, or assuage the sense of being voiceless and abandoned that helps drive that contempt, or reduce the willingness to believe in conspiracy theories, or combat the growth of anti-Semitism. In fact, it is likely to have the opposite effect. It will only strengthen the sense of a political elite deaf to the concerns of ordinary people, and drive the idea of malign forces conspiring to silence the truth. The main consequence of Vall’s campaign has been to afford Dieudonné a new public stage and to transform him into a martyr.
Censoring ugly ideas does not make them go away. Bans, rather, are a means of abrogating our responsibility for dealing with such ideas. It is only through freedom of expression that we can articulate our disagreements and truly challenge the ideas of others, whether they are bigots or not. Banning hate speech is to take the easy way out. Rather than challenging hateful or bigoted ideas, or engage with the concerns of those who might be drawn to them, many politicians and intellectuals prefer today simply to ban that which is deemed unacceptable. The anti-politics sentiment that drives the support for a figure like Dieudonné also, in a different way, underpins the campaign to silence him. Both Dieudonné and those campaigning to ban him seem to know what they hate and want to forbid, but are less able to define what they want or how to argue for it. Anti-system, anti-Semitic, anti-politics: welcome to the anti age.
Photo of Nicolas Anelka © Action Images.