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

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.