Paris pursues comedian in ‘quenelle’ case

Interior minister’s crusade against Dieudonné dominates news

French author Marek Halter cleans the word ‘quenelle’ written on “The Wall For Peace” at the Champs de Mars near the Eiffel Tower in Paris on Monday. Photograph: Reuters

French author Marek Halter cleans the word ‘quenelle’ written on “The Wall For Peace” at the Champs de Mars near the Eiffel Tower in Paris on Monday. Photograph: Reuters


French interior minister Manuel Valls yesterday sent a three-page circular letter to the prefects, who are his enforcers, titled: “Struggle against racism and anti-Semitism . . . performances by Monsieur Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala”.

Valls ordered prefects to stop Dieudonné’s tour of France, which was to begin in Nantes on Thursday. Ten days had passed since Valls vowed to outlaw the comedian, and there are still doubts regarding Valls’s legal footing. In 2010 the council of state ruled that a mayor who had banned Dieudonné’s show had acted illegally and had struck “a severe blow to freedom of expression”. The town paid €1,500 in damages.

Valls’s initiative “doesn’t scare us”, Dieudonné’s lawyer, Jacques Verdier, told Le Monde. “We’ll attack every order and we’ll win, as we always have until now.”

Anti-Semitic offen

As Valls noted in his letter, Dieudonné has already been convicted nine times of anti-Semitic offen

ces. Much of the present controversy surrounds the “quenelle” gesture – holding one hand to the chest or shoulder, with the other extended rigidly downward, like a lowered Nazi salute. Dieudonné’s companion Noémie Montagne has patented the gesture, as well as the use of its name for beverages, a television network and a public relations company.

Dieudonné has said the quenelle is a sign of protest against the establishment. Valls has accepted the assertion of Jewish groups that it is anti-Semitic. Soccer player Nicolas Anelka created a scandal last month when he “did a quenelle” to celebrate a goal. Dieudonné’s friends include retired tennis player Yannick Noah and basketball champion Tony Parker.

A quenelle is an oval-shaped dumpling stuffed with pureed fish or meat. But Dieudonné has repeatedly referred to it as an instrument of sodomisation, as when he promised to “put a quenelle up the backside of Zionists”. To the tune of the second World War Resistance Chant des Partisans, he addressed President François Hollande in his show: “François, do you feel it, sliding into your backside, the quenelle.”

Dieudonné’s supporters have posted photographs of themselves “doing the quenelle” on social media. At Christmas, six young Jewish men were arrested in Lyon for attacking a man who had “done the quenelle” on Facebook – some justification, perhaps, for Valls’s contention that Dieudonné threatens public order.

The Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) is Dieudonné’s bête noire. He accuses Valls of taking orders from CRIF president Roger Cukierman. “Summoned to [Cukierman’s] office, [Valls] crawled on the floor,” Dieudonné says in his show.

The crusade of Valls, who has called Dieudonné “profoundly anti-Jewish” and a “petty entrepreneur of hatred”, has dominated headlines for weeks. France has Europe’s largest Jewish and Muslim populations, and Valls has spoken of “a new anti-Semitism, often virulent, growing in the heart of our [immigrant] neighbourhoods”.

‘Racist insult’
Images surfaced on the internet of a man performing the quenelle in front of the school where Mohamed Merah murdered a teacher and three Jewish children in Toulouse. On Sunday night, the League against Racism and anti-Semitism announced it was suing unknown persons for “racist insult” for “doing the quenelle” in front of the Bordeaux synagogue.

Some quenelle jesters seem unaware of its darker connotations. Tony Parker, for example, apologised and said he hadn’t realised its significance. The group SOS Racisme said it would sue systematically when it is performed in symbolic places such as synagogues or Holocaust memorials.

At least three times in recent weeks Dieudonné has targeted Jewish radio journalist Patrick Cohen. “See, if the wind turns, I’m not sure he’ll have time to pack his suitcase,” he said. “When I hear Patrick Cohen talking, I say, ‘You see, the gas chambers . . . Pity.’”

Though Dieudonné has stopped short of calling explicitly for the journalist’s extermination, Radio France has filed a law suit.

Mild criticism
Voltaire is quoted as having said: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Yet few public figures have come to Dieudonné’s defence. There is mild criticism of Valls for providing free publicity for the comic, whose YouTube videos have been watched by more than a million people, and whose shows sell out months in advance.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the extreme right wing Front National (FN), recently “did a quenelle”. Dieudonné sais Le Pen is the godfather of one of his children. In her quest for respectability, Le Pen’s daughter Marine has kept her nose clean. But the controversy has enabled Marine’s advisor, Florian Philippot, to portray the FN as the champion of free speech, civil liberties and the rule of law.