The French comedian claims he has been "denied freedom of speech" as he is investigated over "apology for terrorism"by Josh Lowe / January 14, 2015 / Leave a comment
Why are we talking about Dieudonné? The French-African comic has reportedly been arrested for being an “apologist for terrorism” after he made a joke on Facebook showing apparent sympathy for a gunman who killed five people in Paris last week, four of them in a kosher supermarket. Paris prosecutors launched an investigation on Monday after being instructed to do so by France’s Ministry of the Interior. Playing on the phrase “Je suis Charlie”, used as a rallying cry for those showing solidarity with the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Dieudonné wrote on his Facebook page: “Tonight, as far as I’m concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.” Coulibaly was the gunman’s surname.
So who is he? Originally called Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, the comedian is the son of a French woman and a Cameroonian man. His jokes have frequently got him into trouble, in particular those deemed to be anti-Semitic. Last year, the French government issued a strong recommendation to local authorities across France to cancel his scheduled shows, on the grounds that he had repeatedly violated French laws against inciting racial and religious hatred. In 2003, he appeared on French TV dressed in orthodox Jewish garb, performing a Nazi salute and crying “Israheil!” He makes fun of the Nazi atrocities in a song called Shoananas which mixes the French word for “holocaust” with that for “pineapple.” He began his career in the early 90s as part of a controversial double act with the Jewish comic Elie Semoun. Since the pair went their separate ways, however, Semoun has criticised him, writing (in an open letter to Libération in 2004) that: “You and me, we made fun of everyone, people loved it… but that’s why I feel so betrayed. You are not the same Dieudo.”
Why have I heard of him recently? Last year, Dieudonné found himself in the spotlight after high profile fans like the footballer Nicholas Anelka publicly performed Dieudonne’s invented Quenelle gesture. The signal, which involves touching your shoulder with one hand while holding out the palm of the other pointing downwards, was first used by the comic in performances in 2005. It has been described as a cross between an expression of outrage and a Nazi salute. The comedian and his supporters counter that it is simply a gesture of opposition to “the establishment,” though Dieudonné popularised it during his anti-Zionist campaign for the European Parliament elections in 2009 and it is widely claimed that a large number of the targets of Quenelles posted by fans online are Jewish locations and people. Dieudonné has seven convictions for anti-Semitic hate speech.
What happens next? The offence carries a potential sentence of five years if Dieudonné were found guilty, according to Le Monde, but any conviction would likely provoke a colossal backlash among his followers. He has currently been arrested after the Paris prosecutor began his investigation earlier this week. Questions are also likely to be raised about freedom of speech—the millions who marched in Paris yesterday did so in support of the right to offend. Clearly, Dieudonné’s words are markedly different from the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo, but the precise nature of this distinction will form part of France’s existential wrangling over the coming days.