French police on Wednesday arrested the country’s most incendiary comedian, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, for having posted a message on Facebook last week which appeared to show sympathy for the man who killed four Jews in a kosher supermarket in Paris last week.
“Tonight, as far as I’m concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly,” wrote Dieudonné in a reference to the gunman Amedy Coulibaly who also fatally shot a policewoman last Thursday.
The arrest of the comedian was “totally exaggerated and disportionate” according to his lawyer Jacques Verdier. He told TIME on Wednesday that his client remained in custody nine hours after his arrest. Verdier said he thought the government had “lost its composure.”
The arrest is already being seen as a sign of double standards in France, coming three days after President François Hollande attended a march through the streets of Paris to proclaim freedom of speech. The paroxysm of violence in Paris began on January 7, when Said and Cherif Kouachi massacred eight journalists at the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo and four others. The Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed on Wednesday it had planned and ordered the attack on the publication.
On Wednesday, Dieudonné was being investigated for “defending terrorism.” His arrest came a day after Prime Minister Manuel Valls — who last year ordered theaters to cancel Dieudonné’s show — made an impassioned speech to parliament about “these preachers of hatred,” without mentioning the comedian by name. The comedian’s in-your-face act, with its jokes about the Holocaust, has made Dieudonné a household name in France, and tickets to his shows sell out weeks in advance. In a long interview with TIME last year, Dieudonné said, “there is some paranoia among Jews. If I have deeply hurt anyone, I apologize.”
Dieudonné, who comes from a Cameroonian immigrant family, has built his fame around the ability to push buttons and cause offence. That, says, Verdier, is similar to Charlie Hebdo, whose humor regularly insults people. “Dieudonné is also controversial, he is also against religion,” he says. The comedian has irked the government for years, and instilled deep anxieties in French Jews, who see his brand of humor as giving voice to rising anti-Semitism in the country.
While the Charlie Hebdo attack brought huge global sympathy, it has also provoked a strong debate in France about the limits of free speech, something that does not have blanket legal protection as it does in the U.S.. Judges can deem remarks, for example, to further terrorism or racial violence, and denying the Holocaust is banned under law. French officials have ordered 54 investigations into hate speech since the Charlie Hebdo attack.
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