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Dieudonné and hate speech in France

January 17, 2014

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Today, notorious comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala had his most recent and inflammatory show banned across France. Touring for this show, “The Wall,” has been followed by headlines across France as scheduled cities on the tour banned the performance. After today’s verdict, the comedian has issued a statement saying he would drop this particular show and begin performing one focused instead on Africa.

 

The issues at the heart of this controversy have seen increasing coverage in French and international media in the past few years. At face value, Dieudonné (whose name means “God-given” in French) is the French-born son of a Cameroonian father and French mother. He has had a complicated career which saw a switch from performing for a mainly politically-left audience with a Jewish partner to courting the most radical right-wing sections of the French population and cultivating a close relationship with Marie Le Pen, founder of the ultra-right, nationalist party Front National. He claims to speak “for the colonized against the colonizers” and was particularly banned because of his comments concerning Jews and the Holocaust, none of which have been anything short of shocking. Though he denies the accusations, he has been labeled an anti-Semite throughout France and much of the Western world for downplaying the importance and brutality of the Holocaust and rekindling old distrust and resentment of the position of the Jewish population in Western society. It would be wrong to ignore the consequences of Dieudonné’s agenda, and it would be naïve to think his highly publicized remarks are not defamatory and exploitative. Yet, far more is implicated in this issue than one person spewing hate speech to the impressionable masses.

 

France has quite a different experience with hate speech than the United States (as well as most of the rest of the world), particularly as concerns Jews and the Holocaust. In France, it is illegal to deny certain historical events or categorize them in a manner different than the official stance of the Republic. For example, one cannot deny the Holocaust as genocide or claim that slavery or the slave trade were not crimes against humanity. These so-called “memory laws” define an official narrative of history, criminalizing its retelling in any other form. The laws concerning the Holocaust or slavery seem like they should be acceptable to all, but other memory laws have more obviously negative connotations. One example of this is the law “expressing gratitude to women and men who participated in the activities carried out by France” in their former colonies effectively thanking people who perpetrated systematic torture against individuals, many of whom have descendants who are now French citizens. These laws inevitably alienate parts of the French population in the name of preserving the dignity of very specific others. Such legislation is anything but unproblematic.

 

The comments and persona projected onto the world by Dieudonné cannot be seen in a theoretical vacuum. The consequences of these inflammatory remarks could easily reignite violent and racist clashes within France and around the world. French President François Hollande has hailed the banning of “The Wall” as a “victory” for his administration, and much of mainstream media coverage in the West seems to agree with him. We should ask ourselves, however, where the line is drawn, how far we will go in curbing what can and cannot be said in public space, and at what point we lose the intellectual and societal integrity we are fighting for.

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