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Controversial French comic expected in Switzerland

Dieudonné is no stranger to controversy AFP

A Swiss show by French comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala will go ahead, despite controversy over his performances in France. The comedian, accused of anti-Semitism, is due in Nyon, near Geneva, in early February.

This content was published on January 9, 2014 - 18:26
Ghania Adamo, swissinfo.ch

In a series of events on Thursday, a court in the French city of Nantes, where he was supposed to start his tour that day, first overturned a ban on his performance. The French government, which has accused Dieudonné of insulting the memory of Holocaust victims and threatening public order with anti-Semitic jibes, quickly moved to appeal the decision.

Judges in the Council of State, France's highest administrative court, then decided on Thursday night to maintain the ban, shortly before the show was due to begin.

The comic has a string of convictions for inciting hatred against Jews and is the inventor of the controversial “quenelle” hand gesture.

Dieudonné’s show had been banned by the local authorities in Nantes, following the example of other tour destinations Marseille, Bordeaux and Tours.

For Geneva lawyer Marc Bonnant, Dieudonné’s racist comments and reactions on the internet and elsewhere are unacceptable. But whether his shows should be banned - as suggested by the French Interior Minister Manuel Valls - without knowing what audiences will actually hear or see is a different matter. Freedom of expression should be the main consideration, Bonnant says.

“People are saying this show is bad based on their fears or rumours,” he said. “To ban it would be akin to punishing someone for thoughts that might be considered bad. But criminal law is not designed to punish minds, but to sanction actions.”

“In Switzerland, as in other European nations, we have legislation that punishes racism. So we have a criminal procedure, but it can only be applied after the fact.”

Nyon venue

In Nyon Dieudonné will perform his show “Le Mur” (The Wall) in a hall owned by the town. Olivier Mayor, the local councillor in charge of culture, says he has no intention of banning the comedian, for three reasons.

“First of all because we don’t want to make a victim out of him and give him what amounts to free advertising,” he told swissinfo.ch.

“Then because it’s not my role to get involved in the contracts that allow festivals, associations and producers to rent our hall. And finally I don’t want to act as a substitute for the courts, which have already dealt with Dieudonné.”

In 2009 the Swiss Federal Court struck down the city of Geneva’s refusal to rent a stage to the French comedian, de facto banning bans because freedom of expression was considered more important.

French controversy

France’s interior minister, Manuel Valls, said on Monday that local officials across France had the right to ban Dieudonné’s shows because his performances were considered anti-Semitic.

Valls suffered a setback on Thursday when a court rejected a ban in Nantes. But after an appeal, judges in the Council of State, France's highest administrative court, decided to maintain the ban.

The minister had notified local authorities that they could close Dieudonné’s shows based on a potential risk to public order and had instructed them how to proceed. Dieudonné’s lawyers had contended that officials would have to show that the “risk is real”.

Valls has said that racial and anti-Semitic remarks in Dieudonné’s show were also legal infractions and “no longer belong to the artistic and creative dimension”.

The comedian is also well known as well for popularising a hand gesture that’s been used by sports stars such as  Premier League footballer and Frenchman Nicolas Anelka in Britain. Valls has criticised the “quenelle” gesture as an “inverted Nazi salute”.

The 47-year-old Dieudonné denies that his gesture is anti-Semitic. However, he has been convicted more than a half-dozen times for inciting racial hatred or anti-Semitism over the years, although he has refused to pay any fines imposed on him.

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Geneva’s view

But the city did not back down, according to Patrice Mugny, the politician in charge of culture at the time. “Even if we had to pay a big fine, we had promised ourselves never to let Dieudonné take the stage in Geneva, especially after what happened in 2004,” he said.

Back then the comedian was also accused of anti-Semitism after some outbursts in the French media. Geneva, one of his show venues, pondered whether to turn him away. The city finally let the performance go ahead after the Frenchman apologised to the Jewish community.  

“His apologies weren’t sincere because his outbursts continued afterwards,” said Mugny. “What’s happening today shows that freedom of expression will always be a matter of debate.”

The outcry over Dieudonné’s latest show in France highlights the French government’s weaknesses, according to lawyer Bonnant.

“The French authorities can claim moral indignation, but they lack the resources and political strength to do anything about it. The reaction demonstrates that it goes far beyond defending republican values,” he said.

“The comedian gives a weakened government an excuse to avoid speaking about the country’s real problems.”

France and Switzerland

France and Switzerland have different ideas of what constitutes freedom, Bonnant noted. “France says it invented it, but how it applies freedom is a different matter, perhaps because it feels it needs to be forgiven for events in its political past,” he said.

“France still feels guilty, but it also tries to show that it repents – by comforting those it feels were hurt by history and by adopting a moral tone that expresses what it feels is good to ward off the evil deeds of the past.”

Switzerland has done a better job, Bonnant said. “We didn’t invent human rights, and there are some dark periods in our history. Our attitude towards Nazi Germany was far from exemplary,” he pointed out.

“But today Switzerland is a peaceful and stable democracy. Its politicians aren’t perpetually seeking re-election. Its freedom is contained in that peace.”

Dieudonné

The comedian was born Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala in France en 1966, to a French mother and a father from Cameroon.  

His career kicked off in the 1990s as part of a successful duo with Jewish humourist Elie Semoun.

Dieudonné became politically active in 1995 after the murder of a Frenchman of Comorian origin by rightwing extremists. In 1997 he sought to be elected against a representative of the rightwing Front National, getting less than 8% of the vote.

But his tone changed, and in 2002 his outbursts in the press started shocking public opinion. He has also built up friendships with controversial characters such as the Venezuelan terrorist Carlos (a.k.a. the Jackal) and the former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In 2008, the founder of the Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen, became the godfather of Dieudonné’s third child. The same year the comedian was the leader of an anti-Zionist list at the European elections.  

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