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Telling unfunny jokes should not be a crime

The fining of French comedian Dieudonné for publicly insulting Jews is a crime against freedom of speech.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Free Speech

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He has called some of his Jewish critics ‘slave traders who turned to banking or the entertainment business and now to terror activities’ (1). He once labelled the French president’s chief-of-staff a ‘good little soldier of the Zionist lobby’ (2).

In a video circulating on the internet, he appears to attack a ‘yid Zionist lobby’ led by ‘racist liars’ (3). He once appeared on a television show dressed as an Orthodox Nazi-saluting Jew shouting ‘IsraHeil’. In a skit he mimics the Jewish-French philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy, haggling with a street potato-seller and says: ‘How can you ask me to pay so much when six million of us died in the Holocaust?’ He apparently declared, in a radio interview, that he has a habit of ripping out the pages in his children’s school books that deal with the Holocaust (4), which he believes Jewish people exploit for ‘memorial pornography’ (5).

The man in question – and currently in the eye of yet another comedy controversy – is the French comedian Dieudonné. None of this seems very funny to me. But then again, my French is a bit rusty.

The comedian, whose full name is Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, was last week fined €10,000 for ‘public anti-Semitic insults’ after inviting the notorious revisionist historian and Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson on stage during a stand-up comedy show in Paris last December (6). In the skit, Faurisson received a spoof award for ‘social unacceptability and insolence’ from an actor dressed in a chequered flannel pyjama with a yellow star sewn on. When the stagehand claims he was made to wear the pyjama because he was meeting Faurisson, Dieudonné replies: ‘No you fool, you’re wearing it because you were in Belsen, it was obligatory!’ The implication is that the foolish stagehand unwittingly reveals to the audience that he is not an authentic Holocaust victim and Dieudonné, pretending to be the award ceremony host, tries to hide the gaffe (7).

After hearing about the French court judgement, the director of the Leicester Square Theatre in central London cancelled Dieudonné’s upcoming one-man show about domestic violence (8).

Of Cameroonian and Breton middle-class origins, Dieudonné is known for no-holds-barred satire of racial prejudices. He started his career as part of a comedy double act with Jewish comedian Elie Semoun, who has in recent years distanced himself from Dieudonné. He has had the conscience of the French liberal press in tortured contortions, as he’s caused them to debate, to and fro, where to draw the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, what makes a joke drole, and if and where to limit free speech.

Reading about Dieudonné and his shenanigans it’s not particularly hard to make your mind up on the first question. In fraternising with right-wing politicians and Holocaust deniers, tearing up school books that cover the Holocaust, and blaming Jews for the slave trade, it is fair to say that Dieudonné is no fan of the Jewish people. He has also said that the French-Jewish CRIF (Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France) is a ‘Zionist organisation of the extreme right that gathers all our leaders at the beginning of the year to share with them a roadmap or an agenda for the year ahead’ (9). Though it might be mainly Zionism which gets Dieudonné’s scapegoat, this does not amount to ‘legitimate criticism of Israel’ but to an ignorant conflation of ‘Israel’ and ‘the Jews’.

As for whether his stand-up shows and skits are funny or not, I honestly can’t fairly judge his performances as a whole as my patience for watching French YouTube videos is limited. He does seem to have a lot of appeal in France, and across different social groups. A journalist who attended one of his shows in Paris described the audience as ‘multi-racial… young, trendy, intellectual and left-wing’ (10).

But the skits in which Dieudonné deals with Jews, the Holocaust and the Zionist lobby – themes he keeps returning to – seem rather tedious and insulting. There’s one called Le sionisme pour les nuls (‘Zionism for Dummies’), for instance, in which the point seems to be that Jews always whine about the Holocaust even though they’ve probably made lots of it up and, besides, lots of other people have suffered, too, but they don’t get to whine as much (11).

As a magazine which does not believe in slapping gags on gags or in fining opinions – and which believes the public can cope with being offended – spiked completely opposes the criminalisation of Dieudonné’s offensive skits.

Firstly, this would be counterproductive, as it is likely to help Dieudonné claim he is some kind of martyred, free-speech warrior. It will also fuel the conspiratorial mindset of Dieudonné’s fans and others with nightmare visions of a nefarious Zionist lobby occupying, not just Gaza and the West Bank, but also the high seats of power where they get to sit around tables dictating the political agenda (why are Zionists so keen on round tables, anyway?).

Secondly, if we let the authorities put a price on Dieudonné’s words, then there is no telling which opinions will be fined into extinction in the future. Already we have seen how a growing culture of offence-taking has led to the watering-down of comedy and has severely limited freedom of expression in other spheres, too.

As Tim Black reported last week on spiked, here in the UK Jimmy Carr became the latest casualty of this trend after his joke about British servicemen amputees did not go down well with one person who complained, leading the press and politicians to cry offence and demand an apology (12). Such cases are likely to lead not just to over-cautiousness amongst programmers and editors, but also to self-censorship amongst comedians, writers and others as they try to negotiate what is and is not going to be deemed too risqué or controversial.

Thirdly, fining Dieudonné or preventing him from performing, as some have demanded, will only fuel the victim culture that has given rise to the culture of offence-taking, which Dieudonné himself promulgates. The irony of this comedian is that, while he complains about and satirises what he regards as Jews’ monopoly on suffering, his whole raison d’être is to fight for black and Muslim suffering to be officially recognised as well.

Dieudonné, a former anti-racism campaigner who has described himself as a ‘defender of the blacks’, does make fun of blacks and Arabs, too. But his main gripe seems to be that these groups’ suffering is insufficiently respected in France while Jews get too much airtime, sympathy and funding. He said he will continue to tear up his children’s school books ‘as long as our pain is not recognised’. He claims that he is seeking justice for the descendants of slavery, which he believes Jews profited from in the fifteenth century – that was before they started spreading HIV in Africa, apparently (13).

Dieudonné is the epitome of the Suffering Wars, where various groups and individuals fight over who should get to wear the badge of victimhood. And as a self-professed victim, Dieudonné believes that he is on the moral highground and dresses his prejudices and conspiracy theories in the language of anti-colonialism and anti-racism.

Those who drag Dieudonné to court, those who fine him and axe his shows, are only paving the way for other offended individuals to step forward and silence those whose views they deem unpalatable. And there’s nothing funny about that.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black took issue with the ‘offence hounds’ and interviewed comedian Rufus Hound, who said stand-up comedy is a bastion of free speech. Mick Hume examined today’s You Can’t Say That culture. Deborah Lipstadt explained why she is opposed to censoring Holocaust deniers. Or read more at spiked issues Free speech and Arts and entertainment.

(1) We’re from the UN, Haaretz, 7 April 2004

(2) France seeks poll bar for comic, BBC News, 5 May 2009

(3) France fines comedian 10,000 euros over anti-Semitic stunt, Haaretz, 28 October 2009

(4) Heard the one about the racist black comedian?, by John Lichfield, Independent, 22 March 2006

(5) France seeks poll bar for comic, BBC News, 5 May 2009

(6) France fines comedian 10,000 euros over anti-Semitic stunt, Haaretz, 28 October 2009

(7) To watch the skit on YouTube, click here.

(8) French comic Dieudonné’s London show axed for antisemitic joke, Jewish Chronicle, 29 October 2009

(9) Heard the one about the racist black comedian?, by John Lichfield, Independent, 22 March 2006

(10) Heard the one about the racist black comedian?, by John Lichfield, Independent, 22 March 2006

(11) To watch the skit on YouTube, click here

(12) See If comedians can’t be offensive, who can?, by Tim Black

(13) French comic: “Jews profited from slave trade”, European Jewish Press, 23 January 2006

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech

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