While most of France has been showing its support for freedom of speech after the extremist killings at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket last week, one French comedian has decided to test those very limits of that freedom of speech.
Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, generally known by his stage name Dieudonné, posted “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly” to his Facebook account in the days after the attack. His message seemed designed to offend: Playing on the #JeSuisCharlie meme, it merged the name "Charle Hebdo" with that of Amedy Coulibaly, the man who killed four hostages in a kosher supermarket Friday. The post has since been deleted.
The 48-year-old Dieudonné is probably France's most controversial comedian. His career began in the late 1990s when he worked in a comedy duo with his Jewish friend Élie Semoun. The pair poked fun at racial stereotypes and intolerance, but they fell out as Dieudonné began focusing more and more on France's Jewish minority after 2002.
Since then, Dieudonné's act has frequently been accused of being anti-Semitic. It has also, however, made him popular. His success has been particularly notable on the Internet. His Facebook page has almost 900,000 likes, for example. He wrote a song called "Shoah Nanas" (“Holocaust Pineapples”) and invented a straight-arm salute that he called the "quenelle," which resembled an inverted Nazi salute. Both went viral among his online fans.
“I am not an anti-Semite,” Dieudonné would frequently say. He said this at a 2014 show in Paris that was attended by The Post's Anthony Faiola. "Then come the Jew jokes," Faiola wrote at the time:
In front of a packed house, he apes Alain Jakubowicz, a French Jewish leader who calls the humor of Dieudonné tantamount to hate speech. While the comedian skewers Jakubowicz, Stars of David glow on screen and, as the audience guffaws, a soundtrack plays evoking the trains to Nazi death camps. In various other skits, he belittles the Holocaust, then mocks it as a gross exaggeration.
By 2014, Dieudonné's frequent controversies had earned him international fame. His continuing success came at a time when members of France's Jewish community complained about an increasingly anti-Semitic atmosphere they noted in the country. One survey by the New York-based Anti-Defamation League estimated that 37 percent of French people openly held anti-Semitic views, and some anti-Israel protests after the summer's conflict in the Gaza Strip turned into broader anti-Jewish violence.
A number of terrorist attacks in Europe have been aimed at Jews. In 2012, a gunman's rampage resulted in the deaths of three children at a Jewish day school in Toulouse. And in 2014, a French national targeted a Jewish museum in Brussels, killing four people. Both attackers had extremist Islamist beliefs. Amedy Coulibaly, the man invoked by Dieudonné on Facebook, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, according to a video released posthumously. In the aftermath of the attack, France has deployed 10,000 troops to various Jewish sites around the country.
Dieudonné claims that he makes jokes about French Jews only because of their high status in society. He says, for instance, that his "quenelle" salute is anti-establishment rather than anti-Jewish.
“If the Portuguese were protected in France and had big influence, then he would protest the Portuguese,” Dieudonné's lawyer, Sanjay Mirabeau, told The Post last year. His fans are often African and Arab youth who feel marginalized from French society (Dieudonné's own father is from Cameroon), though, confusingly, he often allies himself with the far-right National Front party.
The comic likes to frame the controversy about him in terms of free speech. His argument may have received a boost on Monday when the Paris prosecutor’s office said it has opened an investigation into Dieudonné's Facebook post on grounds it may have been "defending terrorism."
In a letters addressed to French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve that the comic posted to his Facebook page, Dieudonné said the French state has been trying to "eliminate me by any means." He said he currently faces more than 80 legal proceedings. (France has laws that criminalize "hate speech" -- statutes with which Charlie Hebdo faced its own battles.)
"There is no attempt to understand me, you do not want to listen to me," Dieudonné wrote. "You look for a pretext to ban me. You consider me Amedy Coulibaly whereas I am not different from Charlie." After news of the investigation spread, #JeSuisDieudonné began to spread among his supporters on Twitter.