When is anti-Zionism no longer funny in France? Ask Dieudonne

Posters of the French comedian known as Dieudonne are posted outside his privately owned Theatre de la Main d'Or. (Devorah Lauter)

Posters of the French comedian known as Dieudonne are posted outside his privately owned Theatre de la Main d’Or. (Devorah Lauter)

PARIS (JTA) — Since the late 1990s, French stand-up comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala has used satirical comedy to spread his self-described anti-Zionist views in the name of politically oriented art.

Despite past French court convictions for spreading “racial hatred” of Jews, the 43-year-old Dieudonne managed for years to draw large audiences and earned a reputation for poking fun at France’s right wing.

At least, until recently.

Last December, Dieudonne apparently went too far when he invited a notorious Holocaust denier associated with the far right, Robert Faurisson, to join him on a stage near Paris in front of 5,000 roaring fans. As the crowd cheered, an actor dressed as a Jewish Nazi camp prisoner awarded Faurisson a prize for “unrespectability.”

The stunt was possibly Dieudonne’s most outlandish since he made far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen his daughter’s godfather in 2008.

In addition to prompting new charges of anti-Semitism against Dieudonne by Paris prosecutors — they were announced April 8 — the Faurisson scandal has crystallized Dieudonne’s transition from the political left to the far reaches of the political right.

The scandal also has helped turn Dieudonne into a symbol of the anti-Semitism that connects the far right and far left in European society.

Dieudonne is running for election to the European Parliament on an anti-Zionist ticket that includes supporters on the political far left and right. The comedian has become a bridge for otherwise disparate political elements that share an intense aversion to Zionists and Jewish institutions, which Dieudonne says “poison France.”

“Dieudonne represents what radicalism can become," said Marc Knobel, a researcher at the CRIF umbrella group of French Jews. "He’s a hyphen between extremists.”

Due to his latest antics, negative public opinion of the comedian has risen sharply, and many French cities now bar him from publicly performing.

“How painful it is to come to despise someone whom we admired,” wrote one anonymous ex-fan on the French news Web site Rue89.

“Now things are clear,” said Alain Jakubowicz, a lawyer for the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism who has sued Dieudonne in the past. “His clown nose has fallen. He’s no longer a comedian at all. He is simply an extremist politician. Now we can see what is underneath.”

This wasn’t always so clear. Until he teamed with Faurisson, Dieudonne had earned a significant following despite his views on Jews.

In 2003, when Dieudonne disguised himself as a Muslim-hating Chasid wearing a military jacket and ski mask, hinting that Zionists wield disproportionate power in the world, a French audience and celebrity guests applauded the comedian.

“I recently converted to Zionist fundamentalism,” Dieudonne said in the 2003 performance, “for professional — I mean spiritual — reasons.”

In the sketch, he asked young people to “convert” to the “Amerciano-Zionist axis,” since “that is the only way to keep living in this country.”

In the past, Dieudonne’s work enjoyed sympathy from political activists and fans who associated him with anti-racist mockery — Dieudonne is half Cameroonian — and the simple desire to entertain. He has more than 30,000 fans on the social networking Web site Facebook, and when Dieudonne ran for the European Parliament in 2004 on a “Euro-Palestinian” ticket, he did relatively well in some poor French suburbs.

“Before, there were a certain number of people who advocated for freedom of speech around Dieudonne; now that’s impossible,” Knobel said. “People who said he’s not so bad, we don’t hear from them anymore. He’s totally marginalized.”

For his part, Dieudonne says he’s anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic.

The Dieudonne affair is related to the debate in French society over whether certain forms of anti-Zionism constitute anti-Semitism and whether the problem of anti-Semitism in France is exaggerated.

In the poor suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, where riots broke out in 2005, high school history teacher Antoine Germa says his students once agreed with Dieudonne’s argument that French society focused attention on the Holocaust at the expense of other tragedies, such as slavery.

But now “he has lost credibility,” Germa said of Dieudonne. “When it comes to anti-Semitism, there are few who support him.”

These days, as Dieudonne tries to keep up his performances while running a political campaign and defending against new charges by French prosecutors, the once-popular comedian is struggling to sell seats to his shows. He reportedly will be performing out of a bus in the coming weeks.

On May 5 he’ll face anti-Semitism-related charges for the Faurisson skit.

To some fans, Dieudonne is still about having a good laugh.

Outside Dieudonne’s private Theatre de la Main d’Or in an alley in the Bastille district of Paris, Laurent Stammegna explains why he still pays to see the Dieudonne.

“It’s true he’s really shocking, but he’s never killed anyone, unlike the people who are in power,” Stammegna told JTA. “It’s still just comedy.”

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