French Jewry and the Dieudonné Affair

, March 1, 2015

The Jewish community in France currently is in the midst of one of its most difficult periods since the end of World War II. According to the Jerusalem Post, “French aliya figures correlate with a spike in anti-Semitic attacks registered last year: A total of 614 recorded incidents that constituted a 58% increase from 2011. French participation in Israel’s Masa program, which sends Jewish students to study in Israel for periods up to a year rose by 25% in 2013, from 750 last year. 3,120 French Jews moved to Israel in 2013, up from 1,916 in 2012.”1 Unfortunately, this is only part of the story. There were over twice as many antisemitic incidents in France in 2014 than in 2013, including violent demonstrations which resembled pogroms. Jews were attacked in public; Jewish businesses were torched and vandalized and synagogues were targeted. An increasing number of Jews are leaving France. Some 6,900 Jews immigrated to Israel in 2014, nearly twice as many as in 2013. A similar number have relocated to England.

In retrospect, the writing has been on the wall for some time. In addition to the violence noted above, the brutal kidnapping, torture and murder of Ilan Halimi in Paris in 2006 because he was a Jew and the slaughter of a rabbi and three Jewish children at the Otzar Hatorah School in Toulouse in 2012 have had profound repercussions throughout French Jewry. In addition, the insecurity of French Jews has been exacerbated by the popularity and notoriety of a second-rate, stand-up anti-Jewish comedian and aspiring politician with an unusual name, Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, known as simply as Dieudonné (“God-given”). According to a survey conducted in January 2014,2 some 16 percent of the French sympathized with Dieudonné and 4 percent actually like him. As the population of France is close to 66 million, the figures are fairly high. The comedian is a staple of many talk shows, television and radio programs, editorials in mainstream papers, lengthy articles in major magazines and discussions among the political and cultural elites. The influential French weekly, Le Nouvel Observateur, devoted the issue of January 9, 2014 to Dieudonné. According to its columnist Francois Reynaert, “in one single week there were about 250,000 op-eds on the question.”3 There is even a book about him.4

Born in 1966 to an African father from Cameroon and a French mother who were divorced when he was about a year old, Dieudonné was raised by his mother in an affluent Paris suburb. In an interview in the weekly Le Point, in February 2014,5 she stated that “being of mixed race allowed him to be confronted at times with racism and he became aware early of problems of discrimination.” After graduating from high school, he held several jobs and tried his luck on stage with a former schoolmate, the Jewish comedian Elie Samoun. They began performing wherever they could. Their initial success in the early nineties resulted in Dieudonné’s receiving a few bit parts in movies. In 1997 his relationship with Samoun ended and Dieudonné attempted to launch a political career. He took a leftist, pro-Palestinian position. In 2004, he lost an election to the European Parliament when he ran as a candidate of the Euro-Palestine party. In 2009, he failed a second time, as the head of an anti-Zionist party, with less than 1.3 percent of the vote. At the same time, he began to include extremely offensive jokes about Jews and the Holocaust in his repertoire. As his popularity increased, his remarks became more outré. In 2012, Dieudonné starred in a film produced by the Iranian Documentary and Experimental Film Center. Entitled The Anti-Semite, it was so replete with repugnant images from concentration camps and other tasteless sequences that a scheduled screening was canceled and the movie was banned. It is now only available online by subscription.6

Antisemitism in France is not new. In a drawing by the well-known French cartoonist, Denis Pessin, published in 2003, a Frenchman tells his companion, “Antisemitism is coming back,” and the latter replies, “I did not even know it had left.” France, however, has a highly effective judicial arsenal that deals with such provocations. In 1881, a strict law against incitement of racial hatred was enacted.7 An amendment to Article 24, added in 1972, went even further and targeted:8 “those who….provoked to discrimination, hatred or violence towards a person or a group of persons because of their origin or their belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race or a specific race.” Furthermore, on July 13, 1990, the French National Assembly approved the “Loi Gayssot”9 that made denial of crimes against humanity a criminal offense.

Dieudonné has flouted those laws. Although he has been sued many times, the courts have dealt with him rather leniently. When convicted of outright defamation of particular individuals, he did not receive a jail sentence, but had to pay substantial fines which he did not do. The courts were reluctant to condemn his outrageous lies and preferred to side with the comedian who argued that his remarks were part of his right to freedom of speech. For example, in a lengthy interview to the Lyon Capitale website,10 Dieudonné declared: “For me the Jews are a sect, a swindle. It’s one of the worst, because it is the first.”11 Such a blatant

attack on the Jews as a whole should have been condemned immediately. In fact, the Union of Jewish Students sued the comedian on the basis of the amendment to Article 24 of the Law of 1881. The case, however, went through several courts, eventually to the Court of Appeal, with the same disheartening result. Dieudonné was pronounced not guilty because he had not abused the right of freedom of speech. According to the decision of the Court of Appeal, his offensive words “refer to a theoretical debate on the influence of religions and do not constitute an attack directed against the Jewish community….”12 The Jewish community was determined to pursue the case. Its elected representatives of the Consistoire Israélite and LICRA13 brought it before the Cour de Cassation (Court of Appeals), the highest judicial body in France, which reversed the previous verdicts.14

Dieudonné was not deterred by litigation. He provoked widespread indignation by coining the term “memorial pornography” to condemn commemoration of the Holocaust.15 He had to pay a more lenient fine than the prosecution demanded, but did not pay it. The public continued to attend his performances and loudly applauded his rants that were disguised as jokes. One of Dieudonné’s more notorious outbursts on stage consisted of an attack against a Jewish radio reporter in December 2013, as follows: “When I hear him speak, Patrick Cohen, I tell myself, you see, gas chambers….pity.” 16 He had gone too far. Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, decided to ban his show. In turn, Dieudonné appealed the ban. His appeal was upheld, but the Cour de Cassation ruled for the government. It is noteworthy that only 52 percent of the public approved of the ban.17 The frustrated comedian called the minister, “Mussolini-moitie-trisomique” (Mussolini with half Down Syndrome). Subsequently, Valls sued for defamation and won.18

Dieudonné removed the offensive sketches and replaced the word “Jews,” with “Zionists.” He added some winks and nudges and went on tour with his revamped program, playing to full theaters. His performances were sold out and his popularity soared. However, in February 2014, when he decided to go to England in order to support a friend who was in trouble for making an antisemitic gesture in public, Dieudonné was forbidden from entering the United Kingdom.19 Prime Minister David Cameron explained the government’s decision by declaring that his “abhorrent displays of anti-Semitism have no place in a tolerant and inclusive Britain.”20

Dieudonné, however, has a place in France, despite the fact that he constantly complains that the courts are trying to silence him and bankrupt him by imposing fines that he cannot pay because he has no money. The satirical weekly, Le Canard Enchaine, dismissed this claim in its issue of February 12, 2014.21 The magazine published a cartoon entitled, “The Hidden Fortune of Poor Dieudonné,” showing the comedian asserting, “I am not an antisemite and I am broke.” It also listed some of his assets: For example, the French taxation authority discovered some 600,000 Euros and $15,000 in cash in his luxurious estate in Mesnil-Simon, which features

a tennis court, swimming pool and extensive grounds. He also owns another country home, a Mercedes and a barge for sailing. His mother and his companion own equal shares in the company that produces his shows, thereby protecting his profits from frustrated creditors. In January 2013, Dieudonné asked his fans to help him pay money that he owed to the income tax authorities. His call did not fall on deaf ears. Within two months, his devoted admirers contributed nearly $750,000.

As we have noted, a major problem as far as Dieudonné is concerned is his increasing and widespread popularity. He plays to large and satisfied audiences. Many wait on line to attend his shows and applaud his most outrageous guests, including the notorious Holocaust denier, Robert Faurisson, who claims that there were no gas chambers and that the genocide of the Jews is a myth.22 Furthermore, his latest videos on YouTube have attracted over two million viewers.23 His website boasts many subscribers who watch his performances online. His official Facebook page has nearly 800,000 “likes.” These fans eagerly defend him whenever he is attacked by the press. Hundreds of talkbacks accuse the media of being owned by “the Jews” or “the Zionists,” or comment that other artists are either jealous or racists who cannot stand the success of an African entertainer. They gleefully imitate la quenelle, a hand gesture which has become Dieudonné’s trademark and is considered to be antisemitic. Further, they frequently express denial of the Holocaust and blame the Jews or the Zionists for the fact that its existence cannot be disputed. This recurrent and disconcerting trend is prevalent among the large Muslim minority in France. Teachers have complained that they can no longer teach the history of the Shoah—the term for the Holocaust used in France—and that Dieudonné has made matters even more difficult. According to Le Figaro, a French teenager told his teacher the following: “The Shoah, I keep on being force-fed about it. Between TV shows, TV series and school, they speak of nothing else. It makes me feel good to laugh about it with Dieudonné.”24

In addition, many Frenchmen believe that the restrictions imposed on the comedian are essentially undemocratic and argue that the only reason that Dieudonné is targeted is because he has confronted the Jews and the Jewish lobby. On January 26, 2014, during a massive anti-government demonstration in Paris, called the “Day of Anger,” some of the protestors chanted slogans demanding that Jews leave France and claiming that the gas chambers were a myth. The video of the event was posted on YouTube.25 There was no action taken against them.

Another major problem regarding Dieudonné is the fact that several reputable figures in France and abroad have written lengthy articles emphasizing what they perceive as overkill. They believe that he has been given too much exposure and that he will be regarded as a martyr. According to Yves Threard of Le Figaro, “the man deserved only silence and contempt. He now enjoys an unhealthy notoriety and will use and abuse it with his followers whipped into hysteria.”26

Furthermore, Rony Brauman, a founder of the NGO, Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) and a Jew, argues that the restrictions of the Gayssot Law inspire Dieudonné’s protests.27 He deplores the fact that the genocide of the Jews has been elevated to the rank of “a metaphysical event and that joking about it is considered blasphemous.”28 Other figures, who are not as well-known, assert that the public must be permitted to laugh at whatever it wants. For example, Charlotte Barbaza writes: “Dieudonné makes you laugh? You are an anti-Semite … Maybe one should take a step back and stop turning humor into a politico-commercial tool, so that everyone can have his individual freedom back.”29 Le Nouvel Observateur30 published the objections of the leaders of the small, but reputable, Liberal Democratic party to the proposition made by a senator and seconded by several members of the Socialist government to regulate the internet, which is replete with antisemitism and Holocaust denial, as destroying freedom of speech. In their opinion, “the objective is clear: deprive the internet of its role as a counter-power that is destroying the tool that was at the heart of the Arab Spring.”31 And, Paul Silverstein, a professor of anthropology at Reed College in Oregon, remarks that “much like the public debate following Zinedine Zidane’s infamous 2006 headbutt, the quenelle affair risks bolstering an increasingly popular view that the French Republic is under threat from internal incivility, from an increasingly fragmented population that refuses to sign an already-written contract of liberal toleration. And that is probably the last lesson one might hope would be drawn from the comedian’s efforts, problematic as they may be, to insist on the inclusion of a broader population into national narratives of suffering and belonging.”32

According to Philippe Karsenty,33 “Dieudonné has only brought to light French antisemitism. The man has long been protected if not promoted by the media.” He notes that years of Israel bashing in the French mainstream media and on television have slowly fostered that antisemitism. “Antisemitism in France, it is not Dieudonné, but France Television.”34 Several intelligent people have reached another disturbing conclusion. They not only are appalled at the extent of popular antisemitism in France but also at the denial of its existence on the part of the media which constantly repeat that it not antisemitism, but anti-Zionism. The latter apparently is a legitimate point of view, not to be confused with antisemitism, which must not be tolerated. Responding to such arguments on January 17, 2014, on a program on Radio J, a radio station of the Jewish community, Professor Shmuel Trigano35 stated that what we see today is “the consequence of the overall complacency toward the bluff which would have that anti-Zionism is not the new name of anti-Semitism.”

For Michel Gurfinkiel, a former editor of French weekly Valeurs Actuelles whose articles occasionally appear in the Wall Street Journal and Commentary, the future is bleak. In a thoughtful piece, entitled “Is France Going National-Socialist?”36

Gurfinkiel wrote that “January 2014 will be remembered as an ominous turning point in French politics: the moment when explicit antisemitism was accepted as a legitimate political view by at least a segment of the public.”37 The last few sentences are especially instructive: “Eliette Abecassis, a writer and philosopher, posted the following on her Facebook page following the January 26 demonstration: ‘Some years ago I would still wear a necklace with a Star of David and I was not afraid to send my children to a public school… Some years ago I could not even imagine that I would hear anti-Jewish slogans in the street…Some years ago I believed in humanity.’”

Gurfinkiel concludes: “In other words, it is time to go.” We should recall that this was in January 2014, several months before the war in Gaza in the summer of 2014 and the large anti-Israel demonstrations in the streets of Paris where the mobs shouted “Death to the Jews” and “Jews get out of France.” Shops and synagogues in Paris were attacked and the security forces did nothing. Gurfinkiel published these statements a year before the terrorist attack on the Hyper-Cacher Supermarket in Paris where four Jews were murdered.

In the meantime, Dieudonné has had a few setbacks. In July 2014, he was sued for income tax fraud and money laundering; in September 2014, a new investigation was launched after he published a video that made fun of James Foley, an American journalist beheaded by the Islamic State in Iraq. Dieudonné added that the deaths of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi had not bothered “the Rothschild mafia.” However, according to Le Nouvel Observateur,38 October 21, 2014, he decided to form a new political party called National Reconciliation in order to fight against “the lackeys of the Jewish World Congress…a satanic and Mafiosi organization.”

In a perceptive—some would say premonitory essay published at the end of the tense summer of 2014, Robert Wistrich concludes bleakly: “In France, as in much of Europe, the freedom to live one’s identity as a Jew has become not only much more limited but also much more perilous. If an image of the European Jewish community is wanted, the emblematic picture today is that of the synagogue in Rue de la Roquette, its congregants huddled within, marauders screaming ‘Mort aux Juifs’ at the doors, the intellectual elites averting their gaze or blaming the Jews for their own misfortune, an apathetic civil society, and authorities seemingly powerless to stem the tide.”39

Most recently, Dieudonné’s reactions to the terrorist attacks in Paris on January 7–9, 2015 have led to another police investigation. Following the murder of the members of the editorial board of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, several police officers and four Jewish shoppers at the Hyper-Cacher Supermarket in Paris by radical Islamic terrorists, there was an outpouring of anger and sympathy with some four million Frenchmen participating in demonstrations throughout the country. Many carried signs and posted hashtags with the slogan, Je suis Charlie (“I am

Charlie”), identifying with the victims. Dieudonné posted his own comment on Facebook, Je suis Charlie Coulibaly (“I am Charlie Coulibaly”). (Amédy Coulibaly was the terrorist who murdered a police officer and took hostages and murdered four shoppers at the kosher supermarket. He was killed, when French forces freed the hostages at the supermarket.) Accordingly, Dieudonné was charged with condoning terrorism in a trial held on February 4, 2015 and fined 6,000 Euros. His fans, who stood outside the courtroom, claimed that he was a victim of the double standard practiced by French authorities. The latter condemn his humor as incitement, while arguing that the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo are acceptable humor. Dieudonné, however, seems to take it in stride.

* * *

Notes

1 http://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Jewish-News/NBN-disputes-Jewish-Agencys­aliya-numbers-336504.
2. http://www.metronews.fr/info/sondage-exclusif-71-des-francais-ont-une-mauvaise­opinion-de-dieudonne/mnai!qtFo83uK8OB3g/.
3. “En une semaine nous avons eu droit à environ 250 000 tribunes à son propos,” Le Nouvel Observateur, no. 2566, p. 27.
4. Jean Robin, Alain Soral et Dieudonné: La Tentation Anti-Semite (Alain Soral and Dieudonné: The Antisemitic Temptation) (Paris: Broche, 2014).
5. “En dehors du fait que son métissage lui a fait, parfois, rencontrer le racisme primaire et prendre conscience assez tôt des problèmes de discrimination,” Le Point, February 3, 2014.
6. For more information about that episode, see: Tablet Magazine, http://www.tabletmag. com/jewish-arts-and-culture/104436/antisemite-banned-at-cannes.
7. See: Article 24 of the law on freedom of the press, July 29, 1881.
8. The amendment to Article 24 of the law of July 1, 1972 reads as follows: “Ceux qui… auront provoqué à la discrimination, à la haine ou à la violence l’égard d’une personne ou d’un groupe de personnes à raison de leur origine ou de leur appartenance à une ethnie, une nation, une race ou une religion déterminée….”
9. http://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichTexte.do?cidTexte=JORFTEXT000000532990&dateTexte=&categorieLien=id.
10. The date of the interview is June 23, 2002. It is no longer available on the internet. The interview cites the court decision extensively.
11. “Pour moi, les juifs, c’est une secte, une escroquerie. C’est une des plus graves parce que c’est la première,http://www.courdecassation.fr/jurisprudence_2/assemblee_pleniere_22/ arret_n_9911.html.
12. http://www.courdecassation.fr/jurisprudence_2/assemblee_pleniere_22/arret_n_9911.html.
13. LICRA is the abbreviation for the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism.
14. http://www.courdecassation.fr/jurisprudence_2/assemblee_pleniere_22/arret_n_9911.html.
15. http://tempsreel.nouvelobs.com/societe/20070911.OBS4352/pornographie­memorielle-Dieudonné-condamne.html.
16. “Quand je l’entends parler, Patrick Cohen, je me dis, tu vois, les chambres à gaz… Dommage,” http://tempsreel.nouvelobs.com/societe/20131230.OBS0911/propos-de­Dieudonné-sur-patrick-cohen-ouverture-d-une-enquete.html.
17. http://www.metronews.fr/info/sondage-exclusif-71-des-francais-ont-une-mauvaise­opinion-de-dieudonne/mnai!qtFo83uK8OB3g/.
18. http://www.ladepeche.fr/article/2014/01/18/1797833-Dieudonné-juge-avoir-traite­manuel-valls-mussolini-moitie-trisomique.html.
19. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/03/dieudonne-banned-uk-nicolas­anelka-quenelle.
20. http://news.sky.com/story/1224604/.
21. http://laregledujeu.org/2014/02/13/15856/la-fortune-de-Dieudonné-revelee-par-le­canard-enchaine/.
22. Valérie Igounet, Robert Faurisson. Portrait d’un négationniste (Paris: Éditions Danoël, Coll. Médiations, 2012).
23. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_uASZ-YWUs.
24. http://www.lefigaro.fr/actualite-france/2014/01/26/01016-20140126ARTFIG00134­quand-les-professeurs-peinent-a-enseigner-la-shoah.php. “La Shoah, j’en suis gavé depuis la classe de troisième. Entre les émissions de télé, les séries, l’école, on ne parle que de ça. Moi, ça me fait du bien d’en rire avec Dieudonné.”
25. http://www.dreuz.info/2014/01/jour-de-colere-juif-la-france-nest-pas-a-toi/.
26. http://www.ouest-france.fr/dieudonne-le-polemiste-pourrait-devenir-une-victime-selon­la-presse-1842713.
27. http://www.causeur.fr/Dieudonné-brauman-wizman-junger,26114.
28. Ibid.
29. Le Nouvel Observateur, February 8, 2014.
30. http://leplus.nouvelobs.com/contribution/797932-liberte-d-expression-sur-le-web-la­reglementer-c-est-la-detruire.html.
31. Ibid. “L’objectif est clair : priver internet de son rôle de contre-pouvoir, soit précisément détruire l’outil de démocratie qui fut au cœur du printemps arabe.”
32. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2014/02/27/the-response-to-the-Dieudonné-affair­in-france-risks-demonising-french-minority-groups-in-the-name-of-tolerance/.
33. Personal communication to the author, February 9, 2014.
34. http://www.dreuz.info/2014/01/lantisemitisme-en-france-ce-nest-pas-Dieudonné-cest­france-televisions/.
35. Shmuell Trigano is professor of political sociology at Nanterre University in Paris and a prolific writer on Jewish subjects and on contemporary problems of French Jewry and society. He is a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
36. http://www.michelgurfinkiel.com/articles/497-Is-France-Going-National-Socialist.html.
37. Ibid.
38. http://tempsreel.nouvelobs.com/politique/20141021.OBS2736/dieudonne-et-soral­creent-leur-parti-dernier-delire-de-deux-antisemites.html.
39. http://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/2014/10/summer-in-paris/.

Michelle Mazel

Michelle Mazel is a graduate of Sciences Po – the Institute for Political Science – and the Paris Faculté de Droit. She is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction and lives in Jerusalem.