DON'T LOSE ACCESS:
Your IP access to ForeignPolicy.com will expire on June 15.
To ensure uninterrupted reading, please contact Rachel Mines, sales director, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After Mocking Holocaust, French Comedian Gets 2 Months in Belgian Jail
A French comic was sentenced Wednesday to two months in prison in Belgium for anti-semitic comments he made in 2012. But similar charges haven't stopped him before.
In 2012, French stand-up comic Dieudonné M’bala M’bala climbed on stage in a Belgian comedy club, and in front of a crowd of more than 1,000 people, called Adolf Hitler a “sweet kid,” challenged the existence of gas chambers during the Holocaust, and said the Jewish Talmud is a “shit book.”
Surprise, surprise: Not everyone found it funny.
And now Dieudonné, who goes by his first name and has built his personal brand on provocation, is paying the price for his poorly planned jokes. On Wednesday, a Belgian court fined him roughly $9,500 and sentenced him to two months in prison for incitement to hatred over the 2012 comments, which they labeled as racist and anti-Semitic. Dieudonné did not appear in court and it was not immediately clear whether he planned to appeal the charges.
Wednesday’s verdict is just the latest in a string of run-ins with the law that amount to nothing short of a terrible year for the controversial comic, who counts among his claims to fame the creation of the “quenelle,” a salute considered by many to invert the Nazi gesture and be a symbol of anti-semitism.
In January, after gunmen stormed the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, killing 12, and another gunman killed four at a Kosher grocery store in Paris, Dieudonné was arrested for posting on social media that he “felt like Charlie Coulibaly.” The statement mocked the French “Je Suis Charlie” movement intending to show solidarity with the victims by adding in the last name of the gunman responsible for the massacre at the kosher grocery. Dieudonné was later found guilty of condoning terrorism, but escaped a lengthy prison sentence by paying a large fine.
There’s no question his January comment was intended to provoke, but even some of Dieudonné’s adversaries pointed out the irony that French authorities arrested him for his comment but hurried to the defense of Charlie Hebdo, also known for their political and religious instigation. France has in recent years been forced to walk an increasingly narrow line between freedom of speech, secularism, and prevention of hate crimes. According to data gathered by the Office for Democratic and Human Rights, which documents hate crimes around the world, there were 851 hate crimes motivated by anti-semitism in France in 2014. That’s up from 450 the year before.
Earlier this month, Dieudonné lost an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which ruled that he was not protected by freedom of speech for bringing a known Holocaust denier, dressed in striped pajamas with a yellow star that said “Jew,” on stage during an earlier performance in France. Dieudonné hoped to repeal a French court’s verdict that found him guilty of hate crimes in connection to that performance, which cost him more than $10,000 in fines.
Although he’s managed to gain a significant following in France, especially in the African and Maghrebi diasporas (he is half-Cameroonian), French spectators have complained for years that his relentless references to Judaism and the Holocaust amount to hate speech. And in 2013, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said he agreed with that assessment.
Valls announced he would seek to legally ban Dieudonné, who maintains a large following, from performing publicly in France and called his performances a “public safety risk.” But he is not without allies in the political sphere. Jean-Marie Le Pen, former leader of France’s far-right National Front party, and father to its current president, Marine Le Pen, is reportedly one of his close friends. The older Le Pen once called the Holocaust a “mere detail of history.”
And the younger Le Pen hasn’t been without her own controversies, facing charges this fall for hate speech after she compared Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation. But she has also struggled to separate herself from her father’s legacy, and has taken a harder stance on the comic’s rhetoric against Jews. Although she called suggestions to ban his performances a sign of “totalitarian excess,” she admitted that comments he made publicly about a Jewish journalist and a gas chamber last year were “against the law.”
Photo Credit: AFP PHOTO / LOIC VENANCE