Pressure mounts on French comic in racism row

A man poses with one of his drawings showing a Jew character covering the mouth of an other character with a gag reading "freedom of speech" during a gathering in front of controversial French comic Dieudonne's theatre on December 28, 2013 in Paris, to protest against French Interior minister who called for Dieudonne's new tour performances to be banned. During the gathering, some protestors performed the "quenelle" gesture popularised by anti-establishment Dieudonne, who has been condemned in France on several occasions for anti-Semitism.

PARIS - The mayor of Paris on Sunday joined France’s interior minister in calling for comedian Dieudonne, whose vitriolic brand of humour targeting Jews has caused outrage, to be banned from the stage.

Anti-racist groups also threatened legal action against a provocative arm gesture Dieudonne makes which has been described as an upside-down Nazi salute.

Dieudonne has been part of France’s comedy scene for years, but while he started out with a Jewish comedian in sketches that mocked racism, he gradually veered to the far-right and alienated some fans with anti-Jewish comments – one of his latest being a joke about gas chambers.

Speaking on Europe 1 radio, Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe likened Dieudonne to a criminal who “defends crimes against humanity”.

“We must ban the performances (of the comedian),” he said, echoing recent comments made by Interior Minister Manuel Valls.

Dieudonne has been fined several times for defamation, using insulting language, hate speech and racial discrimination, and over his use of the provocative straight arm gesture known as the “quenelle”.

But the 47-year-old comedian argues that the horrors of the Holocaust are given too much focus to the exclusion of other crimes, like slavery and racism, and says the gesture merely represents his anti-establishment views.

The “quenelle” has landed several personalities in hot water, including footballer Nicolas Anelka, who recently used it to celebrate a goal.

SOS Racisme, an organisation that fights racism, announced Sunday it would take to court anyone who spread pictures of or made the “quenelle” in locations such as synagogues or Holocaust memorials “that leave no doubt” as to the anti-Semitic nature of the gesture.

The French-based International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (Licra) said late Sunday that it was ready to take such legal action in Bordeaux, in southwest France, over recent “quenelle” incidents outside a synagogue there.

“There has been a type of impunity” as regards the offensive gesture, “but the impunity is over,” said Licra’s Clothilde Chapuis.

Valls, meanwhile, has said he wants to ban performances by Dieudonne on his nationwide tour this month, outraged by the comedian’s recent jibe against Jewish radio presenter Patrick Cohen.

“When I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I tell myself, you know, the gas chambers... A shame,” Dieudonne had said in comments filmed secretly at a show and aired on French television last month.

Valls, who believes Dieudonne’s shows are taking the form of political rallies, has also asked the comedian to pay some 65,000 euros ($88,500) he has run up in fines.

Officials in several cities where Dieudonne is set to perform during his January tour have said they are trying to ban his show.

Veteran Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld have called for a protest on Wednesday at a theatre in the western city of Nantes, where Dieudonne is due to perform.

And Patrick Klugman, the lawyer representing SOS Racisme, said Sunday the organisation would “look into all legal possibilities of holding liable those who allow Dieudonne’s commercial venture to prosper", such as those who sell tickets to his shows.

But the comedian has scores of die-hard fans who feel he is being hounded by the media and politicians.

“There are some who say much worse things than him and no one says anything to them,” one netizen said on a Facebook page that presents itself as Dieudonne’s official page, and has 466,000 likes.

“Leave him alone, I saw him twice in Lille (northern France)... He’s great.”

‘Living in a world of hatred’

The controversy comes at a sensitive time for France, where racism has shot to the fore after the country’s black justice minister became the victim of a series of racial jibes – prompting President Francois Hollande to pledge intransigence on racism in his New Year’s address.

Valls himself has been accused of discrimination after he said in September that Roma did not want to integrate.

The French-born son of a Cameroonian father and a white mother, Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala shot to fame in the 1990s in a double-act with his childhood friend, Jewish comedian Elie Semoun.

But in 1997, he fell out with Semoun, who has since accused him of “living in a world of hatred”.

Dieudonne veered to the far right, cosying up to National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen and becoming politically active in what he calls anti-Zionism, standing for EU-wide elections in 2009 on an anti-Zionist platform, although he won little over one percent of the vote.

He visited Iran and professed admiration for its leaders, described Holocaust commemorations as “memorial pornography” and made “Heil"-like signs in televised sketches.

But his shows at a small theatre in Paris that he manages attract packed audiences.

At one of his shows on Thursday, the comedian performed for 75 minutes, regularly railing against “the Jews", “Jewish people", “kippa city", or “the banking slave master” to general hilarity, an AFP journalist witnessed.

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