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Dieudonne: The bizarre journey of a controversial comic

By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris


Dieudonne M'bala M'bala - the man who inspired the controversial gesture known as the quenelle - is at the centre of a growing row in France over the acceptable limits of free speech.

More generally known by his simple stage-name Dieudonne, the one-time comedian has travelled a vast political space in the last 15 years.

From being a staunch anti-racist who ran in elections against the National Front and whose first stage partner was the Jewish comic Elie Semoun, he now openly attacks the "Zionist-American axis of power" and named Jean-Marie Le Pen as godfather of his child.

He has been condemned on seven occasions for anti-Semitic remarks - at one point describing holocaust commemorations as "memorial pornography" - and counts as allies a motley mixture from Shia radicals to shaven-headed far-right ultras.

But despite (or maybe because of) his estrangement from the establishment - and these days he is now more or less totally boycotted by the media - Dieudonne retains a wide appeal in France.

Thanks to the internet, he speaks regularly to his tens of thousands of fans via Twitter and Facebook. And his videos on YouTube, which appear every week or so, can draw up to 2.5 million hits.

image captionA Dieudonne supporter displays an anti-Jewish cartoon

A classic example of his populist, provocative touch is the invention of the quenelle, which was brought to a British audience by French footballer Nicolas Anelka at the weekend.

The gesture has spread like wildfire because it is handmade for the "selfie" generation. For many it has become the new way of showing two fingers to the powers-that-be.

But its origins are there for anyone to find out, and they are clearly anti-Jewish.

So what is it that pushed Dieudonne on this journey - from admired comic performer to media pariah, from hero of the bien-pensant left to best friend of holocaust deniers?

The transition seems to have begun after 2002, the year he ran for the presidency but had to give up the campaign for lack of sponsorships.

A few months later he gave a taste of things to come with an extraordinary appearance on a TV chat show. Dressed as an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, he gave a Nazi salute while shouting "Isra-heil!"

In 2004 he headed a list called Euro-Palestine at the European elections. In 2006 he made a surprise visit to the National Front's annual fair, and a month later he invited the holocaust denier Robert Faurisson on stage at his theatre in Paris.

That episode included the bizarre spectacle of Faurisson being presented with the "prize for unfrequentability and insolence" by a man dressed in concentration camp pyjamas.

The list of provocations goes on to the present day, getting more and more outrageous.

image captionAnti-Semitic graffiti on Jewish gravestones, Strasbourg

The latest is the recording of remarks concerning the broadcast journalist Patrick Cohen, of whom Dieudonne said, "When I hear him talking, I say to myself: Patrick Cohen, hmm... the gas chambers… what a shame."

The comments have triggered yet another police enquiry, as well as a new initiative by the government to try to block his forthcoming nationwide tour.

Dieudonne denies that he is anti-Semitic. He says his attacks on Israel are another matter and that anti-Zionism is a defensible political position. But he says he has nothing against Jews in general, so he is not anti-Semitic.

However there is no question, if you analyse his words and thoughts, that Dieudonne harbours a deeply-held animus against what he sees as the privileged position Jewish people hold in society.

The starting-point of his political identity was defence of black people's rights. Dieudonne is himself half African. His father is from Cameroon, and his mother from Brittany.

As a comic, his early performances centred around the injustices felt by "les noirs". Then somewhere, as his views hardened, the fight for recognition of black pain came into conflict with the pain of the Jews.

image captionLouis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam movement has been accused of anti-semitism

It is not an unfamiliar story. In the US too, a section of the Afro-American population - represented by the Nation of Islam movement - has shown varying degrees of hostility towards Jews.

Sometimes this is expressed as anger at a Jewish "monopoly" on extreme suffering. Sometimes it is the age-old accusations - how Jews own the houses we live in and the shops we shop in. How Jews are everywhere in politics and on the telly.

This is classic anti-Semitism. Dieudonne calls it fighting the "Zionist-American axis" - but it amounts to the same thing.

What is new is the context.

Dieudonne's dalliance with the French far-right draws the headlines because it seems so bizarre. And it is true that his bandwagon attracts a fair share of ultra-nationalists and theorists of the Jewish-capitalist take-over. His ally the writer Alain Soral is a prime example.

However at his stage performances many of the audience are disaffected youngsters of black and Arab immigrant background.

According to Jean-Paul Gautier, author of The Dieudonne Galaxy, these people "feel abandoned by society, they don't seem to find their place in it. So basically what he is saying is - look while you're bashing your heads against the wall, the Jews are filling their pockets. And as a message it works."

For this largely Muslim audience, putting the blame on "Zionists" is an easy sell.

It doesn't just explain why their co-religionists in Palestine are going under. It explains why back here in France, they are too.

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