Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, a taboo-busting humorist for some, a shocking anti-Semite for others, is currently at the center of a spiraling controversy in France over the acceptable limits of free speech. After inventing and encouraging the questionable gesture known as the "quenelle," which some say is an allusion to the Nazi salute, the French comic is now facing a ban on public performances by French Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls.

-Op-Ed-

PARIS — There are plenty of reasons not to start the year with Dieudonné. Plenty of excellent reasons not get dragged into the shady controversies that this authorized agitator and so-called humorist invariably triggers. Since the French Interior Minister Manuel Valls denounced Dieudonné’s “racist and anti-Semitic remarks”, since he announced he intended to ”break this circle of hatred” and explore all legal options to ban his shows, not a single argument has failed to call to put things back into perspective.

“Careful!,” some warn: attacking Dieudonné head-on, as Manuel Valls did, will increase his visibility and ensure him unprecedented publicity just before a tour that was supposed to start on Jan. 9 and take him to 22 French cities over the next few weeks.

Threatening to ban his shows, others say, runs the risk of turning the minstrel provocateur into an outcast and perfect victim to demonstrate that his rhetoric was spot on: “See, I’m the leader of the people opposed to the system, because the ‘system,’ embodied by the Minister of the Interior himself, designated me as public enemy,” he will be able to sneer with ease. There’s nothing better to fuel the conspiracy fantasies, which have been his stock-in-trade.

Worse still, isn’t banning Dieudonné’s performances stepping onto a slippery slope for public liberty, threatening the founding principles of democracy that are freedom of speech and assembly? Isn’t it censoring an artist, muzzling a free thinker, rejecting comedy in the name of public morals, as his lawyers are already pleading? Isn’t it running the risk of next being disavowed by the justice system if the “public disorder,” cited by the Minister of the Interior, does not come to pass?

Others still, all the while denouncing Dieudonné’s anti-Zionist — not to say anti-Semitic — provocations, refuse what they think is a political coup by Valls, a way to restore his republican image after harsh criticism in recent months about the Roma population.

None of these arguments are insignificant. So what do we do? Should we leave Dieudonné, night after night, pour out his hatred towards “Jews”, “kippah city” and the “Zionist conspiracy”? Should we cover our ears when he repeats, over and over again, about the French radio host: “When I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I think to myself, you know, the gas chambers… a pity!”?

Should we also ignore his apology of Pétain, responsible for the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup of Jews in Paris in 1942, but still, according to him, “not as racist” as President François Hollande? Should we turn a blind eye when he brings on stage Robert Faurisson, who denies the existence of Nazi gas chambers; or when he starts singing his song “Shoah nanas” (“ananas” meaning “pineapple”, in French), which makes a mockery of the extermination of Jews by the Nazi regime?

Legal and tax grounds

In short, we let him, with more or less impunity, orchestrate these transgressions, pour this poison over the Internet and federate, in a shared jubilation, the ancient anti-Semitism of the far-right and a new anti-Semitism that plays on a competition between pasts in order to better reject the Shoah, in the name of other tragedies of slavery or colonialism.

Lastly, we let him, in the name of democratic freedom, do his trademark gesture — the infamous “quenelle”, which resembles the Nazi salute and represents, for him, a way to give the finger to “this old whore of a democracy” — by treating these eructations with contempt.

Dieudonné doing the infamous "quenelle" gesture — Photo: Facebook page

This public composure, if not a concealed indifference, is simply unacceptable. This is why Manuel Valls was right to engage in combat.

On condition that he now carries it out without flinching – and, of course, within the confines of the law.  Without even talking about banning his shows, which is evidently a delicate matter, but the desire of which has just been confirmed with a memorandum sent to the prefects of the Ministry of the Interior in cities around France.

It is hard to see what prevents the current legislation from consistently opposing Dieudonné: it can punish, including with a one-year prison sentence, “any racist, anti-Semite or xenophobic act,” as well as challenging the existence of crimes against humanity, starting with the Holocaust. In this regard, the “humorist’s” provocations are not opinions, but crimes.

The same applies to the tax and financial grounds. Dieudonné, already convicted several times since 2007 for verbal abuse and incitement to racial hatred, has craftily engineered his own insolvency in order not to pay the 65,000-euro fine he was ordered to pay. But, as the French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira just pointed out, the fraudulent organization of one’s insolvability is a criminal offense. What are we waiting for?

But, quite rightly, Taubira added that the legal penalty “will not be enough”: against this “snickering barbarism” that is “testing society, its mental health, its ethical solidity and its vigilance,” there is indeed a need for a relentless political fight.

This would show that democracy is not powerless against those who threaten it by flouting the rule of law, its procedures and its fundamental values. It would also point out that, if tolerance is a cardinal virtue, it will not accept the intolerable.