Immediately after an unknown killer walked into the Jewish museum in Brussels and gunned down four people, the president of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism, Joël Rubinfeld, made the following statement: “What just happened was foreseeable. It was bound to happen. For the past few years, we witnessed a liberation of anti-Semitic words. It grows up again, most notably through the speeches of both the comedian Dieudonné and the representative Laurent Louis.”
Three hours later, Laurent Louis answered with a very long statement whose rhetoric calls to mind the Nazi answer after the Reichstag burning. He said in substance that blaming him or Dieudonné for the massacre was “too easy.” He had nothing to do with this “fool deed”—“fool” as in not anti-Semitically motivated—and implied that those responsible were to be found among his fiercest enemies, secret organizations who were trying to weaken his party “Stand up Belges!” on the eve of the European elections—the implication, obvious to those familiar with Louis’ national crusade against Israel, being that the Jewish state itself was behind the museum massacre. (Despite the length of his declaration, Louis had not a word for the victims.)
Bu then what was Rubinfeld alluding to? What is the connection between Louis and Dieudonné M’Bala M’bala, the notorious anti-Semitic French comedian? in 2013, Louis briefly enrolled in Parti Islam, a small organization with apparent links to Iran. Dieudonné, on the other hand, is involved in the “anti Zionist party,” which is led by Yahia Gouasmi, a French Shiite imam of Algerian background who claims to have met Khomeini in 1978 during his exile in France. The author Alain Soral has publicly admitted that the “anti-Zionist party,” of which he is a member, had received 3 million euros from Tehran, in order to finance the party’s electoral campaign in the 2009 European parliamentary elections; although the number shrank to 300,000 euros in a second statement that Soral was forced to make, he has never denied receiving large sums of money from Iran.
Meanwhile, in Belgium, according to the newspaper La Libre Belgique, information about Louis had been passed on to the police regarding money-laundering in connection with Iranian-based terrorist organizations—an indication that Louis may also be receiving funding from paymasters in Tehran.
Dieudonné M’Bala M’bala was born in France in 1966, the son of a Cameroonian accountant father and a white sociologist mother from Bretagne (Brittany). (This last detail may be important, for someone who would later become so obsessed with falsely accusing the Jews of having had a monopoly on the slave trade three centuries ago. Since Bretagne was one of the main regions for departing slave ships, there’s a high enough chance that his mother’s ancestors were slave merchants.) Although he went to a Catholic private school, Dieudonné, according to his own statements, grew up in a politically left-oriented environment. He started to write comic numbers while doing scut work to survive.
Eventually he married, had four children, divorced, and in the early 2000s met Noémie Montaigne, the enigmatic woman who is now also his producer and who is said to have had the deepest influence on his thought. In 2003, he appeared on a TV show called You Can’t Please Everybody disguised as a rabbi and gave a Nazi salute (nobody reacted on the show except to laugh at the joke) and, boosted by the general atmosphere of the country after Sept. 11, went from being a comedian touring with Elie Seimoun, a Sephardic Jew, to becoming an eructing clown preaching hatred, who would be convicted seven times in court of making anti-Semitic statements. For the past 14 years, Dieudonné has been attacking Jewish personalities in his show, inviting figures like the dean of Holocaust denial Robert Faurisson on stage, and confessing his friendship with Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the National Front, the right-wing party that came in first in last week’s elections in France for the European Parliament.
But his great public moment in France came last year, precisely at the time when Laurent Louis was falling for him.
Laurent Louis is 34 years old, born in the Walloon town of Nivelles, Belgium. He displays on TV a round, jovial, childish face, perpetually laughing. After three years as a member of the center-right Mouvement Réformateur—where he left a reputation of being “incoherent and unstable,” in the words of people who know, according to Le Soir—he joined in 2010 the then-new Parti Populaire and, although totally unknown, ended up député of the PP the same year, thanks to a technical maneuver. Six months later, he was expelled from the PP for harassment against an attaché. Since then, his appearances at the Belgian House of Representatives as deputy leader of the Movement for Freedom and Democracy, an extreme-right party of his own invention, have been marked by what observers have described as paranoia, incoherence, and childishness. He has made lists of alleged pedophiles and accused “the gypsies” and “the banks” of trying to destroy, alternately, Belgium or himself—claims that led the president of the chamber, André Flahaut, to describe him as “an accident in the democratic process.”
It was Dieudonné who made Louis a national figure in Belgium. How the two men met is unclear, but in September 2013 Louis briefly joined the Parti Islam, a political organization led by Redouane Ahrouch, a Shiite imam. By 2013, Louis had found his way: The Jews became his public obsession. During a demonstration in front of the Israeli embassy in Brussels, he trampled on the Israeli flag while carrying a Hezbollah flag; he wrote on his Facebook page that “the Zionists financed Hitler”; he asked his representative colleagues to remember how “the Zionists have implemented the Shoah.” It was also in 2013 that Louis started to quote Dieudonné in his public speeches and used the House of Representatives to perform the “Quenelle”—an “anti-establishment” move invented by Dieudonné that looks half like Nazi salute, half like a “fuck you” gesture. It was also the year when Louis declared himself the “Belgian ambassador” to Dieudonné.
This spring, Louis scheduled for May 4 a “gathering of dissidents” near Brussels. Although the official theme was “freedom of speech,” a list of the (all French) guests stars left no mistake about the broad topic: Kémi Séba, a young racialist black man advocating for the liberation of Youssouf Fofana—condemned to a life sentence for the abduction and killing of a young French Jew in 2004; the writer Alain Soral, Dieudonné’s maître à penser, who presents himself as a “national socialist”; and, of course, Dieudonné himself. The authorities banned the rally, and a protest demonstration ensued, where the all-male crowd threw up quenelle gestures and had to be dispersed by water cannons.
Three weeks later, the Jewish museum massacre occurred in Brussels.
The year where Louis was seeing his true vocation is also the year where, in France, Dieudonné achieved a national fame as a hatred orator—a goal he could not have achieved without the help of the french media. On March 12, 2013, two journalists clashed live on the set of a French TV show called C’est à Vous. One was Patrick Cohen, a public-radio host, and the other was Frédéric Taddeï, star of the “cultural” talk show Ce soir ou jamais, which for years has replaced the famous Apostrophe on the national public TV France2. Cohen launched the attack: He accused Taddeï of inviting and being complacent toward some personalities he called “sick brains.” In addition to the Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan, the “sick brains” listed by Cohen were Alain Soral, Dieudonné, and Marc-Édouard Nabe, an obscure writer whose most successful book, published in 2002, was a tribute to Osama Bin Laden and whom Taddeï had invited repeatedly to appear on his show. By doing so, said Cohen, Taddeï was actually helping to spread the poisonous ideas of his guests—and, since his show was broadcast on public TV, he was doing so with taxpayers’ money. Taddeï answered that precisely because he was working for the public, he thought his duty was to be open to every mode of thought not condemned by law, regardless of his own personal sympathies. “Of course,” he added, “if I were on Fox News I probably would think the way you do and favor people I agree with. But I’m not.”
Taddeï presented himself as a free spirit and Cohen as his would-be censor. But there was much he left out of the story. As it turns out, the writer Marc-Édouard Nabe was, in fact, the godfather of one of Taddeï’s children, a detail he omitted to report. Later, in a subsequent show, as he was asked why he never gave the history of his guests so the audience could place them in their context and know who they were listening to, he answered that doing so would have been “subjective.”
Five days later, Daniel Schneidermann, an op-ed journalist in the left-wing newspaper Libération, furthered the fight in his weekly column: “Well, then, it is said. There is a blacklist of guests on France Inter.” The title of the piece was “Patrick Cohen’s list.” Ramadan, Soral, Dieudonné, and Nabe, the four “banished outlaws,” wrote Schneidermann, had only one obvious point in common: They were saying “disagreeable things about the Jews, Israël, or Zionism.” Schneidermann didn’t bother to explain what those “disagreeable things” were. Although Soral had defined himself as a “national socialist,” literally rewrote The Protocols of the Elders of Zion the year prior, and was posting obscene anti-Semitic videos on his site, Schneidermann described him as nothing but “an unclassifiable publicist.”
In fact, anti-Semitism was not a big concern for Schneidermann (who is also a friend of Nabe). Specializing in the journalistic and left-wing-oriented critical study of media—in addition to his weekly column he also has a TV show and a website both dedicated to the subject—his focus was elsewhere. Thanks to the Internet, he claimed, “interesting personalities” such as the four outlaws could no longer (“like in ‘1984’ ”) be censored by “the system.” In the 21st century, if you were a responsible TV host you had no other choice than to address the new “dissents” that the Internet was helping to create. And this meant inviting them to debate, with all the intellectual legitimacy such invitations conferred, no matter what they said. Doing otherwise was to be an “elitist.” Thus, for Schneidermann, Taddeï was a man of his time, and Cohen was an ideologue of the previous century.
Nine months later, the team of an investigative show aired by France2, Complément d’enquête, succeeded in introducing a hidden camera in Dieudonné’s La Main d’Or, the small theater the comedian has been renting since 1999 in the popular 12th arrondissement of Paris. There, and on tour, Dieudonné was being said to run an openly anti-Semitic show that was especially successful among suburban youth of Arab and African descent who were coming en masse from the “Cités” to hear him. What the journalists found was a much more mixed and restive audience than they expected—some 5,000 people by evening packed in “the epicenter of the anti-Jewish nebula in Paris,” as the political analyst Jean-Yves Camus would call it later on. (By one of those weird ironies no fiction can match, the real-estate company that owns the building, called Amnesia, is the property of two active members of the Jewish community who had been trying unsuccessfully to evict Dieudonné for years.)
On the walls of the theater were posters praising the (by then ex-) Iranian Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Here and there in the administrative part of the theater, offices had been arranged for various political organizations, including extreme right-wing student unions, Soral’s anti-Semitic association, and others. The audience included young adults of both sexes, some coming, as expected, from immigrant working-class backgrounds, and also many white middle-class youth. There were low-ranking teachers, third-world militants, extreme right-wing fighters, regular leftists, and moderate socialists. There were militant Muslims, militant Christians, and republican souverainistes.
Most, though, had no recognizable political affiliation at all. They were freelance computer engineers, technicians, accountants, café waiters, part-time designers, would-be journalists, and what-not, who despised the indifference of the right but were even more revolted by the promises and the lies of the socialist left and by the French “elites” as a whole. It was a crowd infuriated by unemployment, or embittered by poorly paid jobs that were not to their taste. Why couldn’t they get the life they saw on their computers? Why were the best smartphones and cars and clothes out of their reach? What had happened to the France they had grown up in? Who had stolen the richness of the country in the first place?
A crowd of adults, yes, but equipped with the collective emotional brain, and the historical memory, of a betrayed little child, now magically united at the appearance of “Dieudo”—their “outlaw,” their anti-system clown on stage for his new show Le Mur. He was making them laugh together with his sympathetic references to Pétain, the chief of the collaboration with the Nazis between 1940 and 1944. He was doing his funny anti-Jewish “jokes,” like “I pissed on the wailing wall,” “the Holocaust cost us an arm.” That night, he was also commenting on Patrick Cohen’s blacklist.
That is what the TV crew managed to tape: “Patrick Cohen blacklists certain personalities that shouldn’t be invited by the medias.” It was a verbatim quote of Schneidermann’s piece, to which Dieudonné added the following: “When I think of that, I think, you see, if winds change, I’m not sure he’ll have time to pack his suitcases. When I hear him, Patrick Cohen, I think to myself, well, the gas chambers … Too bad.”
Aired on France2 on Dec. 19, those sentences instantly spread on YouTube and Facebook, along with the usual mix of scandalized reactions on the one hand and enthusiastic support on the other. In the following days, among the growing storm of editorials, Le Monde sent a reporter to the theater to give more details on the show, and Radio France, Cohen’s employer, pressed charges against Dieudonné for “inciting to racial hatred and anti-Semitism”—two civil offenses that are in France punishable by fines. By the end of the month, the Interior Minister Manuel Valls declared his intention to ban Dieudonné’s performances in France. He sent a decree to the various préfectures ordering them to take steps to ensure that the comedian did not perform.
The show was set to premiere on Jan. 9 at 8 p.m in the Zenith Theater of Nantes (Bretagne). In the first days of January, the Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld announced their intention to protest at the door to stop the show if it was not canceled. Learning this, and following the minister’s instructions, the préfecture of Nantes issued a decree to ban it under the risk of “possible public disturbance.” The very day of the show though, at 2 p.m., the local administrative tribunal, who has authority over the préfecture, broke the decree. “Take that in the ass, Manuel!” Dieudonné wrote immediately on Twitter, creating an uproar of enthusiastic answers and forcing the humiliated minister to hurriedly rush and twist the arms of the conseil d’état, one of the highest jurisdictions of the country, to get things done the way he wanted.
“The risk of public disturbance” the local tribunal decided, “is not grounds enough for so radical a measure as the ban of an artistic show.” At 6:40 p.m., while in Nantes the would-be spectators were beginning to gather around the theater, the conseil d’étatreversed that judgment and stated that Le Mur constituting “a grave attack against the respect of values and principles of human dignity, as they are consecrated in the Declaration of the Human Rights and by republican tradition” should therefore be banned. It was a last-minute relief for the Jews and, for the minister, an apparent political victory.
But not for long. On the Internet the following day, Dieudonné had no trouble showing that the ban constituted a clear breach of his freedom of speech, doubled by a very dubious legal procedure. Once again, despite what the tribunal had said, “they” had had their way. “They” ruled the country. There was also the fact that Manuel Valls’ wife was Jewish.
But Dieudonné was far from being alone in criticizing the government’s action. Right-wing leaders, political analysts, and intellectuals started to denounce what they saw as a desperate political move by an unpopular government. They were not without grounds. France was three months away from the municipal elections where the socialists were expected to suffer a major blow and the National Front a huge victory (a prediction that came true last week, in the E.U. elections). In October, a secret note from the Elysée special unit focusing on “the Dieudonné phenomenon” had been sent to President François Hollande. The note explicitly compared the tremendous audience of the comedian’s videos on YouTube and Facebook with the poor rating of any TV interview given by Hollande himself. The president’s lack of charisma was notorious. He was at his lowest in the polls, with barely 20 percent of positive opinion after only 18 months in power—the worst showing by any French president since the birth of the fifth French Republic. (Holland would then be caught by paparazzi riding a scooter in the streets of Paris on his way to a gallant rendez-vous with a movie actress, apparently as indifferent to the fate of the country as he was to his own security.) In fact, wrote Le Figaro, by creating a huge scandal around such an insignificant character as Dieudonné, the interior minister was trying to scare and re-mobilize a disillusioned left-wing electorate around an easy cause. By doing so, he had turned a contemptible comedian into a rock star.
And it’s a fact that by January 2014, the Belgian Laurent Louis was not the only one to fall for “Dieudo.” The quenelle had always been popular on Facebook among teenagers. But since Valls’ announcement of his intention to ban the comedian’s show, the quenelle became a European phenomenon. Unknown people started to infiltrate TV shows’ live audiences to do it on screen; TV technicians were invading news sets; on Dec. 28 the Muslim football star Nicolas Anelka made the gesture during a football match in the United Kingdom. Alain Soral went as far as Berlin to have his photo taken while performing the gesture on the roof of the Shoah Museum. Two youngsters performed it in the ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane, the small village in the north of France where, during the war, more than 60 women and children were locked up in a church and burned alive by an SS squadron. In Toulouse, someone performed it in front of the Otzar-Hatora Jewish school, the school where on March 19, 2012, less than two years before, Mohamed Merah had shot to death three children and a teacher because they were Jews. Dieudonné, and his toxic hatreds, had gone viral.
Disregarding all this, Daniel Schneidermann—him again—wrote: “France is then this country whose breath is suddenly held because a footballer or a student who put his hand on the top of his opposite arm, in a gesture whose meaning and origins are unknown.” But in fact, the meaning of the gesture was all too clear, at least for the people who performed it. On Feb. 1, when, as a pretext, an “angry day” against Hollande was called—drawing a crowd of various organizations going from anti-gay-marriage groups to right-wing royalists—demonstrators of all origins supporting Dieudonné started to shout: “Jew, France is not yours.” Not since 1940 had such a cry been heard in the streets of Paris, and, for a while, it froze the polemics. Even Schneidermann stayed mute.
Not for long. On Feb. 5, Patrick Cohen published an “open letter” to Schenidermann in Le Nouvel Observateur. “It is your op-ed piece that set fire to the Fascho-sphere” he wrote, “your sentences that Dieudonné repeated word for word one year ago.” He added, “To have named me as one of the incarnation of the ‘Zionist lobby,’ you became one of the useful idiots of the Dieudonnists. … But what do you know of my convictions, my origins, my persuasion, my beliefs? Since I came of age as a citizen, I never felt or expressed any belonging to a community except that of the Republic.”
In his answer on television, Schneidermann said he was shocked to be so wrongly accused and claimed to have no responsibility for anyone—Dieudonné—who might quote him out of context. Then, probably thinking he was clarifying the matter but actually confusing it a bit more, he added: “I do not know Patrick Cohen. I do not know if he’s Jewish or not.”
Confronting Dieudonné, the French journalists seem caught between indignation and ridicule. After all, why should we care about such a stupid, childish gesture? How could a simple quenelle be taken seriously by the highest authorities of the state—or by anybody with a brain, for that matter? And it is true that paying attention to such ridiculous figures as Laurent Louis or Dieudonné seems at best a humiliating and very boring waste of time. Serious people want serious enemies—and French intellectuals are serious people. Unfortunately for them, though, as Chaplin demonstrated a long time ago, maturity and seriousness are not exactly what comes to mind when one watches and hears Adolf Hitler speak in public. And if the 20th century has taught us a lesson, it is that childishness and ridicule are not the opposite of danger; they can be warning signs that the danger is much greater than we are willing to admit.
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Marc Weitzmann is the author of 10 books and a regular contributor to Le Monde. He is the former editor in chief of Les InRockuptibles.
Marc Weitzmann is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means For Us). He is a regular contributor to Le Monde and Le Point.