Controversial comedian compares James Foley’s beheading to those of the French Revolution


French comic Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala speaks to the media during a press conference in a theater in Paris,  Jan. 11, 2014. (Michel Euler/AP)

The controversial, polarizing French comedian Dieudonne M'bala M'bala is being investigated by French authorities after a new video of him emerged where he allegedly mocks the beheading of American journalist James Foley by Islamic State jihadists.

"I think decapitation symbolizes, before anything, progress, access to civilization," he said in the video. "In France, we decapitated people in front of the masses, on the public plazas."

Dieudonne, as he is commonly known, went on to contrast the muted international reaction to the executions of Libyan and Iraq dictators Moammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein with the global outrage over the slain journalist. "The Rothschild Mafia says no, that's okay, but James Foley, that's too much," he said, referring to the European-Jewish banking family, as if it somehow represents the Western consensus.

French prosecutors said the investigation has begun on the grounds that Dieudonne condoned terrorism. The artist has a long history of making anti-Semitic comments and still owes the French state some $80,000 in fines for earlier remarks. He is due to appear in court in November after attempting to crowdfund the payment of these fines, an act which is illegal under French law. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls labeled him a "peddler of hatred." Dieudonne has made a career, and a considerable amount of money, out of his provocative rhetoric. Mayors across the country have moved to cancel his shows at various times.

Dieudonne made headlines in January after Nicholas Anelka, a French soccer player then with English club West Bromwich Albion, made a gesture invented by the comedian when celebrating a goal he scored on Dec. 28, 2013. The "quenelle" has been described by many critics as a reverse Nazi salute. Anelka, who was banned for five games and eventually left the team, insisted he was not racist nor anti-Semitic.

Dieudonne defends the quenelle, saying it's an anti-establishment, "up yours" gesture, rather than one hostile to Jews. People, however, have performed the quenelle outside synagogues -- acts which are clearly provocative.

Despite the widespread censure of the comedian, Dieudonne's appeal speaks to broader fissures in France. To some, he may be a racist and an anti-Semite. To others, including marginalized African and Arab youth in the country's impoverished banlieues, or suburbs, Dieudonne, whose father is from Cameroon, is a figure of rebellion against the system at large. He has also won support from figures in France's ultra-nationalist, xenophobic far-right, including Jean Marie Le Pen, founder of France's influential National Front.

A profile earlier this year in the New Yorker by Alexander Stille linked Dieudonne's schtick to that of Beppe Grillo, an Italian comedian whose Five Star Movement won numerous seats in parliament in recent elections. "Both men use the mask of 'comedy' to say things that would never be tolerated in other fora," writes Stille. This could be a likely defense of Dieudonne's latest video: where he deploys absurd, offensive rhetoric to make a point about the status quo. Stille goes on:

"Dieudonné plays a game of deliberate ambiguity,” says Damien Glez, a writer and cartoonist from Burkina Faso who has written about Dieudonné for Jeune Afrique, a francophone magazine published in Paris. “He is using a lot of the language and metaphors of old-fashioned French anti-Semitism before a young audience that does not have a very developed idea of anti-Semitism... And then you take this into the banlieue, where many young people feel oppressed by Islamophobia and angry and frustrated about the Palestinians. And everything is ambiguous and mixed together: anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, and anti-system anger. Humor and hatred. The resentment of the Le Pen right and the anger of the recent immigrants of the banlieue. Even the gesture of the quenelle is ambiguous."

It remains to be seen how Dieudonne will spin the "ambiguity" of his comments regarding Foley's grisly, tragic death.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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