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