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01/15/2014 06:37 pm ET | Updated Mar 17, 2014

In Comic Dieudonné, France's Freedom of Expression Meets "The Wall"

In the autumn of 2007, I stood in front of the ruins of a smouldering police station in the town of Villiers-le-Bel, about 10 miles north of Paris. Its roof gone, its walls charred black, and tiles scattered about its courtyard, the abandoned shell emanated the stench of burned wood and plastic into the street.

The station had been ransacked and burned by rioters enraged by the deaths of two local teenagers, killed when the motorbike they were driving collided with a police cruiser. Battles between police, firing rubber bullets and tear gas, and rioters attacking with Molotov cocktails, bottles, and even firearms, continued for several days, with 90 police officers injured and dozens of rioters arrested. This social explosion was an echo of similar riots that gripped France in 2005 following the deaths of two youths electrocuted while trying to hide from the police in the banlieue (as the economically-depressed, largely immigrant suburbs that ring France's glittering cities are called) of Clichy-sous-Bois. Rioting then resulted in the torching of 9,000 cars and dozens of buildings, injuries to 130 police and fire fighters, arrests of nearly 2,900 people, and the murder of a retiree beaten to death as he attempted to put out a fire near his home.

France as a country has long held a great fascination for me both on its own terms (I have lived there for extended periods on two separate occasions) and in terms of the colonial legacy I have seen of it in countries such as Haiti and Côte d'Ivoire, where I have worked as a journalist. Despite its many charms, though, it is also a country in which in recent years, a sense of alienation and decay is palpable, and whose political class, both of the left and the right, appear to have run out of ideas as to how to address a chronic 11 percent unemployment rate (that number is around 20 percent in the banlieues), a public debt that measures 95 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), an infinitesimal growth rate of 0.2 percent and a host of restrictive labour laws that stifle entrepreneurship.

As the suburbs fester, the French political elite cavort like latter-day latter-day Bourbons, with Socialist President François Hollande arriving by motor scooter for apparent romantic trysts at a Paris apartment with peripheral links to the Corsican underworld, much as his conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy jetted with his own romantic interest, the model (and now his wife) Carla Bruni, to the Jordan desert in years past. The man expected to have been Hollande's most serious competitor in the Socialist Party, former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, awaits trial for pimping after charges were dropped that he raped a maid in a New York City hotel room.

For a while during my time in Paris, I lived in Château Rouge, an almost-entirely West and North African immigrant neighborhood in Paris' 18th arrondissement, and perhaps the overall poorest part of the city proper. Despite the district's rather ill-famed reputation as an area of cheap and abundant drugs and lax policing, I loved it, and found a bracing and fascinating quarter that served as both the subject and the title of an as-yet-unpublished novel I wrote.

Street vendors in dashikis (from time to time brutalized by les flics, the police) and women in colorful African head scarfs, bakeries overflowing with tempting sweets for when fasts would be broken during Muslim holidays, and the rhythms of soukous and rai music filling the streets made it, for me, a far more accurate reflection of modern France than the more famous - and deadly dull - tourist zones of the 8th and 6th arrondissements.

France is changing - it has been changing for decades - yet the question of exactly what it is changing into remains open for debate.

Nowhere has this been more vividly illustrated in recent years that in the case of the French comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, known professional simply as Dieudonné.

Born of a French mother and a father from Cameroon, Dieudonné initially got his start as part of a comedy duo with Élie Semoun, a French Jewish comedian of Moroccan descent. Together, the two performed between 1990 and 1997, with their skits poking often extremely-barbed fun at a France that had uneasily transformed over preceding decades from a Gaullist fortress to a multiethnic modern nation flooded with its former colonial subjects and their descendants.

After the two split, their trajectories could not have been more different. Semoun went on to a largely successful movie career, while Dieudonné's public image took on an ever-more political hue. He unsuccessfully contested the 1997 legislative elections as a representative of the anti-racist left, and spoke out in support of both undocumented immigrants in France and the Palestinian cause. Eventually, however, he drifted away from the orthodox left and his public pronouncements became, well, rather strange.

In a 2002 interview with the weekly Lyon Capitale, Dieudonné told a startled interviewer that Jews were "a cult, a scam." In December 2003, he appeared on the French television show On ne peut pas plaire à tout le monde (You Can't Please Everyone) dressed as a masked Israeli settler and ended his sketch with a fascist salute and a word which some heard as "Israel" and others as "Isra-Heil." Hauled to court on charges of anti-Semitism, he was subsequently acquitted when the judge found that the attacks was not directed against Jews as a people, but rather but against a group "distinguished by their political views." In 2004, he stated that he preferred "the charisma of Bin Laden than George W. Bush," and went on to denounce debate about the Holocaust as "memorial pornography," which netted him a fine of 7,000 euros. He directed a 2012 film, L'Antisémite (The Anti-Semite), in which he portrayed an alcoholic brute in full Nazi regalia, featured the Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson (who had become something of Dieudonné chum in recent years) and mocked Auschwitz. The movie was produced by the Iranian Documentary and Experimental Film Center. The list of such episodes goes on and on. During all of this, Dieudonné managed to gather a very odd cult following around him of both the rabid right and the disillusioned youth of the banlieues, each seemingly convinced that anyone the French establishment hated so much must be on their side.

His flirtation with the extreme right grew in a series of abortive political campaigns, and Jean-Marie Le Pen, the aging founder of France's right-wing Front national (National Front) became the godfather of one of Dieudonné's children. Le Pen himself made it to the final round of France's 2002 president elections (where he was defeated by Jacques Chirac), and Le Pen's daughter, Marine Le Pen (now the National Front's president) came in third in France's 2012 presidential elections. French authorities continued to try and silence Dieudonné through a continuing series of court cases, bans and fines, as if by some magic, when the hate he spewed had no vehicle, the hate itself would disappear.

Certainly, all this looks very strange to American eyes. Aside from the disorientating novelty of a biracial man making common cause with the extreme right, in the United States, freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Literally, the first words of the founding legal document of the U.S. read that "congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The protection is not absolute, of course, and some speech inciting what is know as "imminent lawless action" or terroristic threats can come with penalties, as can defamation, but in general, if there is said to be any common ground between the two political currents in the United States today, the idea that speech, no matter how offensive, should be protected, may be it.

In France, the situation is quite different. Act 90-615 makes denial of the Holocaust a crime punishable by up to five years' imprisonment and a €45,000 fine. A 1972 amendment to France's 1881 Law on the Freedom of the Press also makes incitement to racial hatred and racially defamatory comments a crime subject to prison and a heavy fine.

These tensions within French society came to a head recently when Dieudonné attempted to premier his new routine titled Le Mur (The Wall) around France.

Beginning in 2005, Dieudonné coined a new gesture he named the quenelle (also the name of creamy egg and fish concoction), basically a variation of the English "up yours" with one arm extended straight and the others arm touching the shoulder that he said was an anti-establishment sign. Given Dieudonné's political pronouncements, many saw it as an anti-Semitic gesture akin to the Nazi's Sieg Heil (especially as photos circulated on the internet of fans performing the move in front of synagogues and even in front of Auschwitz).

Nevertheless, a number of celebrities, including Belgium-born, French-raised Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs and French footballer Mamadou Sakho, were photographed with the comedian performing the move (though some later apologized). When Dieudonné performed the quenelle at his shows - and when he was filmed with a hidden camera at a show in late 2013 saying that he thought it was "a shame" that "the gas chambers" no longer existed in a reference to (Jewish) French journalist Patrick Cohen - the state intervened.

Dieudonné's most recent nemesis, France's Barcelona-born Minister of Interior Manuel Valls, succeeded in colluding with local authorities to ban Le Mur's opening night on the grounds that it disturbed public order, and said that he would "do everything" to prevent the comedian from being able to appear in public, saying that "a threshold has been crossed" when it came to France's anti-racism laws. Dieudonné responded by dropping the show and saying that he would perform a new show about Africa.

Valls' words would perhaps have not rung so hollow were he himself not a publicly documented xenophobe who, in his position as minster, has called for the mass expulsion of France's Roma community on an ethnic basis, and, as mayor of the city of Évry, was recorded apparently musing that "more white people" would give "a better image" to the town. No legal sanction was forthcoming against Valls.

In response - and further fueling the uproar - last month French footballer Nicolas Anelka performed the quenelle after scoring a goal on behalf of West Bromwich Albion, the football club he plays for in England. and took to Twitter to declare it "a special dedication to my friend Dieudonné."

Though much of what Dieudonné says is undeniably offensive, the actions of the French state to curtail his right to free expression, and the fact that the best France's chattering classes can do in response to his nihilistic charisma is to quote such veteran windbags (and establishment tools) as Bernard-Henri Lévy, is a sadly revealing commentary on a country that, it some quarters, would prefer bury its problems in a hole and hope that they go away rather than deal with them head on and demolish them in the public arena on intellectual terms. In the person of Dieudonné has coalesced the potentially cataclysmic common cause of France's extreme right and the alienated youth of its suburbs, a union that France's political oligarchy will ignore at its peril. The state's actions against him have helped, more than his own words ever could, to turn him into an anti-establishment symbol.

Among all the shrieking and posturing, though, one voice spoke thoughtfully, movingly and perceptively about the whole controversy, and evoked the changing country that France still seems to be wrestling with. That voice belonged to Dieudonné's former comic partner, Élie Semoun. Speaking on France's channel Canal + last week, Semoun, looking slightly mournful, said that his friend "has always been paranoid, he sees enemies everywhere" and wondering wryly if it was "all my fault" that Dieudonné one day overhead him discussing Shabbat with his aunt and perhaps thought he had detected a "conspiracy" that had "traumatized" him.

And then, in a few sentences, without state sanction, without the intervention of France's discredited politicians, Semoun flicked all of Dieudonné's conspiratorial nonsense onto the rubbish heap.

"When we started with Dieudonné, we were the same symbol of anti-racism to the point that I forgot I was black and he was Jewish. We did not care about it...Now this is a problem for everyone. Too bad, I liked being black."

The audience applauded.

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