TIME France

No Laughing Matter

Christopher Morris—VII for TIME Dieudonné M’bala has become a star by targeting France’s Jews

Dieudonné M’bala M’bala has become a star by targeting France’s Jews

In a packed Paris theater one night in July, the curtains open to reveal a tall, stout, bearded man wearing a Guantánamo Bay–style orange jumpsuit. He grabs a toy rifle and pretends to spray bullets at the audience of about 250 people. But it’s the words that follow, not the pretend ammo, that are menacing. “If unfortunately there was a journalist among the victims—a Jew on top of that—they would reopen the Nuremberg trials!” says Dieudonné M’bala M’bala with a loud guffaw, evoking peals of laughter at the mention of the war-crimes trials of Nazi leaders in the 1940s. Later during the show, the 48-year-old comedian (who goes by his first name) imagines a prison conversation with a serial killer, who offers him some advice about committing murder: “You should cut your teeth on a Jew.” The audience laughs at the line as readily as it does during the rest of his act.

It was just another night for France’s most notorious comedian, whose popular act takes aim at the country’s roughly 500,000 Jews and its enduring commemoration of the Holocaust. After a string of sold-out performances, he is about to embark on a national tour in December. But many view Dieudonné’s comedy as a cover for racism, his success as proof that a virulent anti-Semitism has infected France. He says he is simply an entertainer taking on taboos. “People laugh from beginning to end,” Dieudonné tells Time. His one-liners about the Nazi genocide, he says, are there to show that the U.S. and Europe’s focus on the Holocaust has drowned out the memory of other atrocities like the slave trade. “It is the manipulation of this [Nazi] genocide that I find obscene,” he says.

The routine regularly lands him in legal trouble, and he has been levied fines totaling about 65,000 euros ($85,800) in several cases. In theory, convictions could also result in jail time. Under French law, inciting ethnic hatred is punishable with a possible one-year prison term. Questioning crimes against humanity could attract a tougher sentence. Officials are taking notice. In January, the then Interior Minister (now Prime Minister) Manuel Valls used hate-speech laws to persuade several mayors to ban Dieudonné’s show. On July 20, President François Hollande, without referring to Dieudonné, said his government “will not tolerate any act, any words that could give rise to anti-Semitism.”

But the campaign to silence Dieudonné has only bolstered his popularity. To many disaffected young people languishing in a still weak French economy, he is not so much an anti-Semite as an anti-Establishment icon who provokes those in power, no matter the legal consequences. Six months after the January showdown with the government, Dieudonné was back with fresh material, this time casting himself as the populist enemy of an authoritarian elite. Calling his show La Bête Immonde (the Foul Beast), a reference to Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 play about Hitler, he effectively dared the government to try to shut him up again.

His ploy seems to be working: at two performances in Paris in July, adoring fans crowded the theater. Many were from the city’s immigrant suburbs, but there were also a large number of professional white urbanites, perhaps reflecting the steep 40 euro ($54) ticket price. “If he played the Stade de France, it would be packed,” a young audience member named Bilel Elagadoi says. That prospect would horrify French Jews and officials, who liken Dieudonné’s performances to political rallies. “I don’t believe this is a comedy show,” says Sacha Reingewirtz, president of the Union of French Jewish Students, which has brought lawsuits against Dieudonné. “It’s an anti-Semitic meeting.”

The failure to clamp down on Dieudonné leaves French officials with a conundrum: Do they ignore him and hope his allure burns itself out? Or do they continue pursuing him in court—but at the risk of inflating Dieudonné’s importance? The broader question of how to combat hardline racial views has grown more urgent with government fears over the hundreds of French youths who have joined jihadist groups fighting in and around Syria, and as anger over the recent Gaza war has exploded on Paris streets. Outraged over Israel’s military campaign, Dieudonné addressed a public meeting in the Paris theater he leases on July 26, telling about 300 attendees, “Not even Hitler bombed the hospitals.” Greeted with rapturous applause, he said, “Zionism has all the controls, political, economic.”

(Far) Right Turn

As a child, Dieudonné did not seem destined for notoriety. His white French mother raised him in a middle-income suburb outside Paris after his father, an accountant from Cameroon, divorced her when Dieudonné was an infant. He launched his career in the 1990s as one half of a comedy duo with his Jewish childhood friend Élie Semoun. Onstage, the two lampooned their differences at a time when France’s ethnic complexion was changing fast, with a new generation of North African immigrants coming of age. The country now has Europe’s biggest Muslim population at more than 5 million, as well as the largest number of Jews on the continent.

After Semoun and Dieudonné each went solo, Dieudonné’s act grew increasingly pointed about Jews. His trademark move, which he claims to have invented around 2005, resembles an inverted Nazi salute he calls the quenelle, with an outstretched arm pointed downward, and the other arm across it. Dieudonné uses the gesture frequently on stage, and after each show the audience lines up for photos saluting with him. Offstage, Dieudonné ran unsuccessfully as a candidate for the Anti-Zionist Party in E.U. elections in 2009 and in the French parliamentary polls in 2012. In 2010, Dieudonné flew to Tehran, where he met then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (“a particularly intelligent and refined person,” he says) and was a guest star on Iranian national television.

In the midst of France’s alarm over Dieudonné in January, Semoun went on television and suggested Dieudo, as friends call the comedian, was a provocateur and buffoon, and also an anti-Semite whose views had undergone an inexplicable transformation. “When we started with Dieudo, we were the very symbol of anti­racism,” Semoun said, recalling the early days of their partnership.

Those days seem long gone. Today, almost no conversation within France about anti-Semitism fails to mention Dieudonné. The left-leaning Libération paper has called Dieudonné a leading figure among “les nouveaux anti-Sémites,” as the headline called them. When a lone gunman opened fire at the Brussels Jewish Museum in May, killing four people, some Jewish leaders speculated that Dieudonné had helped create the atmosphere for such attacks; the suspect is a French Muslim. The next day, Roger Cukierman, president of the French Jewish organization CRIF, said he thought Dieudonné’s popularity was “very serious, because eventually you go from anti-Semitic speech to an anti-Semitic act.”

Dieudonné dismisses all accusations against him to the point of incredulity. Sitting one evening in the Théâtre de la Main d’Or in Paris’ 11th district, which he leases and whose lobby features his T-shirts and DVDs on sale, Dieudonné says he pokes fun at all ethnic groups. But in reality, his routine heavily targets Jews. In a sketch about a Jewish slave trader, Dieudonné says, “the taming of Negroes is a Jewish specialty.” (Dieudonné prohibited audience members, including Time, from recording his performance, and Time hand-wrote quotes during the show.) Yet he says he believes “there is some paranoia among Jews” about his shows. “If I deeply hurt people, I apologize,” he says. What, then, is the point of this shock humor? Dieudonné argues that he is making people laugh about “the competition of victimization” and says that “some people make a business of suffering.”

Dieudonné’s views track with those of France’s far-right National Front, whose support has soared in recent years, partly by campaigning against so-called communitarianism, or policies that promote ethnic or religious distinctiveness in France, like excluding pork from school meals. In May the party won France’s E.U. elections by arguing for the dismantling of the E.U. itself. “I think communitarianism is something that is passé,” Dieudonné says, echoing the words of the far right. Indeed, the Front’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen (father of its current president, Marine), who has been convicted for anti-Semitism, is a close friend of Dieudonné. It is easy to imagine that Dieudonné is advancing a political agenda on stage that he was unable to advance at the polls.

Driving People Away

In recent months, Dieudonné’s following has grown in tandem with the ongoing violence in Gaza. The war there has also turned the spotlight on anti-Semitism in Europe. French figures show that the number of arson, bombing and destruction-of-property attacks against Jewish targets fell by nearly half between 2004 and 2013. But as anger has risen over Israel’s offensive in Gaza, so too has violence flared against Jewish targets in Europe. Norway’s government shut two Jewish museums in July for fear of attacks, and in Germany, two men were arrested for allegedly firebombing a synagogue. Nowhere was the violence as intense as on the streets of Paris, however. On July 20, a demonstration to support Gaza in the suburb of Sarcelles saw protesters burning barricades, looting a kosher store, smashing bank windows and hurling stones at police, who fired tear gas. Prime Minister Valls accused the perpetrators of “hiding their hatred of Jews behind a facade of anti-Zionism” and vowed to crack down. “France will respond with the greatest force.”

For some, such assurances have come too late. One evening in early July, a few hundred people gathered in an ornate 19th century synagogue in Paris to bid farewell to a group emigrating to Israel—among the 5,000 or so French Jews that the Jewish Agency for Israel says it expects to arrive this year. “I grew up in Sarcelles. It is a diverse neighborhood, and people respect each other,” says Steven Tayeb, a 21-year-old student who moved to Israel in mid-July. “But there is always an element of fear lurking in the background.”

To Jews like Tayeb, Dieudonné bears more blame than most for the latest exodus from France. merci dieudonné, reads the headline of an article in the synagogue magazine placed on each seat during the farewell ceremony in July. “You have proved that there are two Frances, one that doesn’t accept that one hits out at Jews and one that sings laughingly about the Holocaust,” the author writes, addressing the comedian. Yet despite the departure of Jews and concerns about anti-Semitism, Dieudonné remains undeterred, his career flourishing on his discomforting words. “I’m only making people laugh, that is all,” he says. “But maybe my humor bothers people.” For France, Dieudonné’s brand of comedy is no laughing matter.

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