Testing the limits: M’bala M’bala draws on anti-establishment and anti-Jewish feelings that are deeply rooted in France François Berthier/Contour/Getty.
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Dieudonné’s war on France: the Holocaust comedian who isn’t funny

Dieudonné is no Bernard Manning or Frankie Boyle, whose humour is purposelessly offensive. In recent years, he has set out on a political mission to provoke the French state and test the limits of French law.

The Passage de la Main d’Or, half a mile or so from the Place de la Bastille, is a nondescript, narrow street in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, which these days is a fairly chic quarter in eastern Paris. Halfway down the street is the Théâtre de la Main d’Or, a tiny theatre-cum-cabaret. At the entrance to the theatre there is pro-Jewish graffiti – a Star of David and the insignia of the LDJ (Ligue de Défense Juive, or “Jewish Defence League”), a hardcore group of young Jewish activists. Despite its historical credentials – this is the part of Paris where the revolution of 1789 really kicked off – there is little here to suggest any serious threat to the French republic.

The cramped theatre is the headquarters of Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, a comedian who comes from a mixed French and Cameroonian background and whose allegedly anti-Semitic performances have lately convulsed France. Dieudonné has only recently come to the attention of the British public following Nicolas Anelka’s use of the quenelle, a form of inverted Nazi salute invented by Dieudonné, to celebrate scoring a goal for West Bromwich Albion against West Ham. The gesture baffled spectators in England, including the West Brom manager, Keith Downing, but spoke directly to a French public for which the quenelle used by Dieudonné and his supporters is a gesture of contempt for and defiance of what they see as “official France”, mainly controlled by a Jewish elite whose only mission is to preserve Jewish interests.

Unsurprisingly, a large part of Dieudonné’s audience is male and comes from the banlieue of Paris, the poor and run-down suburbs surrounding the city which have a predominantly immigrant population. One of the common beliefs in the banlieue is that France is under the control of Jews.

“France is under Israeli occupation,” said Denis, a 47-year-old Dieudonné fan in the pages of Le Parisien. Denis often attends the comedian’s shows brandishing a pineapple – a reference to the song “Shoananas” (the name a mash-up of “Shoah” and the French word for “pineapple”), a Dieudonné favourite that makes fun of the Holocaust.

“We just come to see Dieudonné for a laugh,” I was told by a middle-aged couple at a café down the road from the theatre. “He takes the piss and that’s why the establishment hate him. The quenelle is just a joke.”

But it’s a joke the French government is taking very seriously. In the most recent twist in the tale of Dieudonné’s confrontations with the French state (he has several convictions for making anti-Semitic statements), the interior minister, Manuel Valls, has invoked the Conseil d’État, the highest legal authority in France, to uphold a ban on Dieudonné’s performances. They are deemed a risk to “public order” and “national cohesion”.

On the face of it, this seems clumsy and heavy-handed. Valls has been criticised by many on his own side for ensuring that Dieudonné gets what he wants – the status of victim and martyr. In recent days Valls has made himself look petty and vengeful by threatening to pursue a lawsuit against Dieudonné for “public insult”, reinforcing the man’s position as a satirist who is tweaking the nose of authority.

For a long time this was Dieudonné’s shtick (a word he probably doesn’t use) – the view of the “petit Français moyen”, the average French bloke, who laughs at the hypocrisies and stupidities of the world beyond the café counter. His usual targets were the powerful and the rich.

The comedian’s monologues are always punctuated by a grating snigger. But Dieudonné is no Bernard Manning or Frankie Boyle, whose humour is purposelessly offensive. In recent years, he has set out on a political mission to provoke the French state and to test the limits of French law – specifically the Loi Gayssot of 1990, the so-called loi anti-négationniste, which, among other things, in effect makes Holocaust denial (“négationnisme”, in French) a crime.

More to the point, the Loi Gayssot places limits on how far an individual can claim that crimes against humanity, as defined at the Nuremberg trials, did not happen – and that is the point of law he has been challenging with his propaganda.

This is what the so-called Affaire Dieudonné has been all about and it is why Valls had no choice but to ban the performer.

Most provocatively, Dieudonné has several times invited the “negationist” writer Robert Faurisson on stage with him. There are many in Dieudonné’s audience who probably don’t know who Faurisson is, even as they cheer on his rants. But, for the French government, Faurisson is one of the most notorious and militant “negationists” active in France. Though he has been fined heavily and repeatedly for breaking the Loi Gayssot, he is still loudly vocal in denying that the Holocaust ever happened. In recent years, he has declared this from Tehran, where in 2012 Mahmoud Ahmad­inejad awarded him a “prize for courage, strength and force” and received him at a private audience. (Ahmadinejad also had a private meeting with Dieudonné when he went to Iran and there are rumours that Iran has been financing the comedian.)

With all this, Dieudonné is placing himself firmly in the “negationist” tradition of French politics. It is a strain of thinking that began in the 1950s with the writings of Paul Rassinier, who argued that the Jews had brought the calamities of the Second World War on themselves and that the gas chambers never existed anyway. For a time these ideas held currency in far-left circles (the big names backing them included Pierre Guillaume, Jacques Vergès and Roger Garaudy) but also found approval in the Front National (Jean-Marie Le Pen’s infamous reference to the gas chambers as a “detail of history”).

Dieudonné is taking negationism from being an underground conspiracy theory and moving it up into the mainstream. He is, as an article for Le Monde by Michel Dreyfus, a senior historian at the University of Paris, described it, making a “negationism” for the masses.

Dieudonné has never explicitly denied the Holocaust: he doesn’t have to. You can see what he means by the company he keeps; it’s easy to find on YouTube the sickening sight of Robert Faurisson being hailed as a hero by Dieudonné’s audience at the Théâtre de la Main d’Or.

One may or may not agree with the Loi Gayssot – there is no such law in England – but it is also true, from the Dreyfus affair to the German occupation to the killings of Jewish children by an Islamist fanatic in Toulouse in 2012, that the French experience of anti-Semitism is very specific.

For the time being, Dieudonné seems to have capitulated, promising to concentrate on Africa rather than the Jews. And yet, at the same time, he has become an even bigger hero to the disaffected youths who form the core of his audience.

A short walk from the Passage de la Main d’Or is the rue des Rosiers, which, despite an influx of designer showrooms, remains the heart of Jewish life in Paris. This is a place steeped in suffering, from the deportations of the Second World War to the massacre at Goldenberg’s deli in 1982, when six people were killed by unknown gunmen. Accordingly, for all its friendly falafel stores and coffee shops, the atmosphere can be tense. This was the case one afternoon recently when I took a stroll through the district and watched as an Italian television crew, reporting on the Dieudonné affair, was manhandled by a group of Jewish lads.

“We are sick of this,” a middle-aged lady who’d been shouting at the Italians told me. “We do not care about this miserable Dieudonné. Why should we care? We just want to get on with our lives.”

I understood her anger. The Dieudonné affair had not been created by Jews, but once again this community was being scrutinised in the media as if the Jews themselves were on trial. “What you have to understand,” I was told by a young Orthodox Jew who spoke fluent Hebrew, French and Brooklynese, “is that Dieudonné is not the problem. He’s just one guy, one anti-Semite. The real problem is that in France there are so many of them out there.”

Andrew Hussey is the dean of the University of London Institute in Paris. His new book, “The French Intifada: the Long War Between France and Its Arabs” (Granta), will be published in March

André Carrilho
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"Jeremy knows he can't do the job." What now for Labour and Britain's opposition?

Senior figures from all parties discuss the way forward: a new Labour leader, a new party or something else?

In the week beginning 13 March 2017, the Scottish National Party demanded a second referendum on indepen­dence, the Chancellor tore up his Budget and George Osborne was announced as the next editor of the London Evening Standard. One fact united these seemingly disparate events: the weakness of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

When Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, addressed journalists at Bute House, her Edinburgh residence, she observed that Labour’s collapse entailed an extended period of Conservative rule. Such was the apparent truth of this statement that it went unchallenged.

Twenty minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions on 15 March, the Conservatives announced the abandonment of their planned rise in National Insurance for the self-employed. Their expectation that Jeremy Corbyn would be unable to profit was fulfilled. “Faced with an open goal, Jeremy picked up a tennis racket,” one Labour MP lamented of his leader’s performance. Rather than a threat, the government regards PMQs as an opportunity.

Two days later, Osborne was announced as the next editor of the Standard. “Frankly @George_Osborne will provide more effective opposition to the government than the current Labour Party,” the paper’s co-proprietor Evgeny Lebedev tweeted. His decision to hand the post to a Conservative MP was another mark of Labour’s marginalisation. In more politically competitive times, owners are warier of overt partisanship.

The Tories have a parliamentary majority of just 15 – the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 – but they enjoy a dominance out of all proportion to this figure. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat former deputy prime minister, told me: “The fundamental pendulum swing of democracy, namely that the people in power are always worried that the other lot are going to hoof them out, has stopped.”

Labour is hardly a stranger to opposition: the party governed for just 20 years of the 20th century. But never in postwar history has it appeared so feeble. By-elections are usually relished by oppositions and feared by governments. But in Copeland in the north-west of England, a seat that had not returned a Conservative since 1931, the Tories triumphed over Labour. In recent polling the governing party has led by as much as 19 points and on one occasion it was leading in every age group, every social class and every region.

Corbyn’s MPs fear that were he to lead Labour into a general election, the attack dossier assembled by the Conservatives would push support as low as 20 per cent.

When David Miliband recently said that Labour was “further from power than at any stage in my lifetime”, he was being far too generous. After the forthcoming boundary changes, it could be left with as few as 150 seats: its worst performance since 1935.

The party’s plight was both predictable and predicted – the inevitable consequence of electing a leader who, by his own admission, lacked the requisite skills. “Now we made to make sure I don’t win,” Corbyn told supporters after he made the ballot in 2015. The lifelong backbencher stood with the intention of leading debate, not leading the party.

Neil Kinnock, Labour’s leader from 1983 to 1992, told me: “From the outset, I said that Jeremy [Corbyn] just can’t do the job . . . Now I think he knows that. He’s been a member of parliament for 34 years and will have a sense of self-examination. Both he and the people who work around him know that he just can’t do the job.”

Morale in the leader’s office has seldom been lower. “They’ve got the yips,” a Lab­our aide told me. Shortly after the Tories’ Budget U-turn, Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications, Seumas Milne, asked journalists whether there would be an early general election. He produced no evidence of any hope that Labour could win it.

Yet Corbyn’s leadership alone does not explain the crisis. In the early 1980s, when Labour was similarly enfeebled (but still strong in Scotland, unlike today), the creation of the Social Democratic Party provided hope. But the mere 23 seats won by the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 (on 25.4 per cent of the vote, against Labour’s 209 seats from 27.6 per cent) acts as a permanent warning to those tempted to split.

With only nine MPs, the Liberal Democrats are too weak to function as an alternative opposition, despite their accelerating recovery. The third-largest party in the House of Commons – the SNP – is an exclusively Scottish force. The hegemony of the Nats, which cost Labour 40 seats in Scotland in 2015, has encouraged forecasts of perpetual Tory rule. “I don’t think there’s any way the Labour Party in this day and age can beat the Conservatives south of the border,” Clegg said.

To many eyes, the UK is being transformed into two one-party states: an SNP-led Scotland and a Conservative-led England. “The right-wing press have coalesced around Brexit and have transformed themselves from competitors into, in effect, a political cabal, which has such a paralysing effect on the political debate,” Clegg said. “You have a consistent and homogeneous drumbeat from the Telegraph, the Express, the Mail, the Sun, and so on.”

In this new era, the greatest influence on the government is being exercised from within the Conservative Party. “Where’s the aggravation? Where’s the heat coming from? Eighty hardline Brexiteers,” Anna Soubry, the pro-European former Conservative minister, told me. “They’re a party within a party and they are calling the shots. So where else is [May’s] heat? Fifteen Conservatives – people like me and the rest of them now. So who’s winning out there?”

Soubry added: “The right wing of the party flex their muscle against the only lead Remainer in the cabinet, Philip Hammond, for no other reason than to see him off. And that’s what they’ll do. They’ll pick them off one by one. These people are ruthless, this is their life’s work, and nobody and nothing is going to get in their way.”

Theresa May’s decision to pursue a “hard Brexit” – withdrawal from the EU single market and the customs union – is partly a policy choice; there is probably no other means by which the UK can secure significant control over European immigration. But the Prime Minister’s course is also a political choice. She recognised that the Conservatives’ formidable pro-Leave faction, whose trust she had to earn, as a Remainer, would accept nothing less.

***

The UK is entering the most complex negotiations it has undertaken since the end of the Second World War with the weakest opposition in living memory. Though some Tories relish an era of prolonged one-party rule, others are troubled by the democratic implications. Neil Carmichael MP, the chair of the Conservative Group for Europe, cited Disraeli’s warning: “No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition.” It was in Margaret Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s pomp that calamitous decisions such as the poll tax and the invasion of Iraq were made. Governments that do not fear defeat frequently become their own worst enemy and, in turn, the public’s. The UK, with its unwritten constitution, its unelected upper chamber and its majoritarian voting system, is permanently vulnerable to elective dictatorships.

As they gasp at Labour’s self-destruction, politicians are assailed by Lenin’s question: “What is to be done?” Despite the baleful precedent of the SDP, some advocate a new split. In favour of following this path, they cite an increasingly promiscuous electorate, a pool of willing donors and “the 48 per cent” who voted Remain. Emmanuel Macron – the favourite to be elected president of France in May, who founded his own political movement, En Marche! – is another inspiration.

A week after the EU referendum, the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, was taken by surprise when a close ally of George Osborne approached him and suggested the creation of a new centrist party called “the Democrats” (the then chancellor had already pitched the idea to Labour MPs). “I’m all ears and I’m very positive about working with people in other parties,” Farron told me. But he said that the “most effective thing” he could do was to rebuild the Liberal Democrats.

When we spoke, Nick Clegg emphasised that “you’ve got to start with the ideas” but, strikingly, he did not dismiss the possibility of a new party. “You can have all sorts of endless, as I say, political parlour game discussions about whether you have different constellations or otherwise.”

Anna Soubry was still more positive about a new party, arguing: “If it could somehow be the voice of a moderate, sensible, forward-thinking, visionary middle way, with open minds – actually things which I’ve believed in all my life – better get on with it.”

However, Labour MPs have no desire to accept that the left’s supremacy is irreversible. But neither do they wish to challenge Corbyn. An MP distilled the new approach: “There is a strategy to give Jeremy [Corbyn] enough rope to hang himself. So it has not been about popping up in the media and criticising him in the way that colleagues did a year or so ago.” By giving him the space to fail on his own terms, rather than triggering another leadership contest, MPs hope that members will ultimately accept a change of direction.

Corbyn’s opponents acknowledge the risks of this approach.

“People are incredibly mindful of the fact that our brand is toxifying,” one told me. “As each day goes by, our plight worsens. Our position in the polls gets worse and the road back gets longer.”

Shadow cabinet ministers believe that Corbyn’s allies will never permit his departure until there is a viable successor. An increasingly influential figure is Karie Murphy, the director of the leader’s office and a close friend of Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey. “She’s holding Jeremy in place,” I was told.

Leadership candidates require nominations from 15 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs, a threshold that the left aims to reduce to just 5 per cent through the “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make ballot when he stood in 2007 and 2010).

Should the rule change pass at this year’s party conference – an unlikely result – the next leadership contest could feature as many as 19 candidates. Labour has no shortage of aspirant leaders: Yvette Cooper, Dan Jarvis, Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, Chuka Umunna. (Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary and Corbynite choice, is said to believe she is “not ready” for the job.)

All are clear-sighted enough to recognise that Labour’s problems would not end with Corbyn’s departure (nor did they begin with his election as leader). The party must restore its economic credibility, recover in Scotland, or perform far better in England, and bridge the divide between liberal Remainers and conservative Leavers.

Lisa Nandy, one of those who has thought most deeply about Labour’s predicament, told me: “I do think that, for many people, not being able to have time with their families and feel secure about where the next wage packet is coming from, and hope that life is going to get better for their kids, is really pressing as a political priority now. They will vote for the political party that offers real solutions to those things.

“That’s why power is such an important unifying agenda for the Labour Party – not just through redistribution of wealth, which I think we all agree about, but actually the redistribution of power as well: giving people the tools that they need to exert control over the things that matter in their own lives,” she says.

But some Labour MPs suggest even more drastic remedial action is required. “In order to convince the public that you’ve moved on, you have to have a Clause Four-type moment,” one member told me. “Which would probably involve kicking John McDonnell out of the Labour Party or something like that.

“You have a purge. Ken Livingstone gone, maybe even Jeremy [Corbyn] gone. That’s the only way that you can persuade the public that you’re not like that.”

Political commentators often mistake cyclical developments for structural changes. After Labour’s 1992 election defeat it was sometimes said that the party would never govern again. It went on to win three successive terms for the first time in its history. In March 2005 Geoffrey Wheatcroft published his book The Strange Death of Tory England. Less than nine months later, the Conservatives elected David Cameron as leader and returned to winning ways. As the US political journalist Sean Trende has archly observed, if even the Democrats recovered “rather quickly from losing the Civil War” few defeats are unsurvivable.

From despair may spring opportunity. “It is amazing how this Brexit-Trump phase has really mobilised interest in politics,” Nick Clegg said. “It’s galvanised a lot of people . . . That will lead somewhere. If in a democracy there is a lot of energy about, it will find an outlet.”

Editor’s Note, 30 March 2017: Len McCluskey of Unite wishes to point out that Karie Murphy is his close friend not his partner as the piece originally said. The text has been amended accordingly.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition