French Comic Accused of Anti-Semitism Again

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What could France's extreme-right leader and notorious xenophobe Jean-Marie Le Pen possibly have in common with a black comic whose leftist convictions and anti-racism activism once propelled him into politics with the objective of defeating a candidate from Le Pen's National Front party?

A raging anti-Semitic streak, for one. Over the past few years, Dieudonné M'Bala M'Bala and Le Pen seem to have engaged in an increasingly sinister competition to see which man can outrage more people with comments designed to bait Jews. Now those efforts have earned Dieudonné something both men have repeatedly won in the past: a trial on charges of anti-Semitic offenses. It remains to be seen whether the trial will complicate the 41-year-old entertainer's plans to lead his self-described "anti-Zionist" list of candidates into June's European Parliamentary elections.

Dieudonné's most recent affront came during a nominal comedy show on December 29 in Paris, where he honored Robert Faurisson, a French negationist historian. In granting Faurisson a mock award for "unrespectability and insolence" based on the historian's repeated court convictions for denying the Holocaust ever took place, Dieudonné was clearly winking at his own record of anti-Semitic offenses. As part of his homage to Faurisson — and presumably to increase its offensiveness — Dieudonné arranged for an actor dressed as a Jewish concentration camp detainee to come on stage and deliver the decoration. On April 8, French prosecutors announced they would try Dieudonné on May 5 for inciting racial hatred. If convicted, Dieudonné faces a maximum six months in prison and a $30,000 fine, which would be the sixth punishment for anti-Semitic statements that courts have slapped him with since 2006.

Dieudonné has made insult and denunciation of "Zionists" a recurring part of his politicized repertoire — one most observers view as scarcely veiled anti-Semitism. In 2003, he appeared on national TV dressed as an Orthodox Israeli settler and giving the Nazi arm salute while shouting "Heil Israel!" Since then, the comic, the son of a Breton mother and Cameroonian father, has been convicted for, among other things, calling Jews "black slave traders"; for claiming that Jews exploit the Holocaust to avoid political criticism in what he called "memorial pornography"; and for slandering a popular French Jewish entertainer with allegations that he'd been a "secret donor of the child-murdering Israeli army." Sentences meted out for his offenses were fines ranging from $4,000 to $62,000, usually as payment to his slander victims.

Dieudonné has occasionally tried to justify his anti-Semitic comments with claims that Jews were the main organizers and beneficiaries of African slave trade, and that they remain the main culprits behind the oppression of both blacks and Arabs. Increasingly, he's sought to position those accusations behind the stance of opposition to Israeli Zionism — which as a political view is difficult to prosecute, even when it flirts with anti-Semitism.

In 2002, he was part of the "Euro-Palestine" list of candidates running for the European Parliament. In June, he's fronting an "anti-Zionism" group that also includes a former Le Pen speech writer, a radical black supremacist, and an author whose 2002 book The Horrifying Fraud became a bestseller in France by alleging that 9/11 was an inside job carried out by the U.S. government.

If that sounds like a crazed conspiracy, Dieudonné's announcement of his electoral designs was in the same league. "Anti-Zionism will be the main issue opposing us to all the other parties," he declared on March 21. "Zionism is gangrening France and is a threat. The Republic must regain its good sense and we must throw all [Jewish] organizations out of it."

Dieudonné's embrace of extreme rightist views contrasts with his earlier support of leftist causes. In 1997, Dieudonné staged a long-shot bid for parliament in the National Front stronghold of Dreux, with an aim to denying victory to Le Pen's candidate — a goal which was attained when mainstream leftist, centrists, and conservative parties united to form a common front. Even after that campaign, Dieudonné continued defending progressive ideals that included anti-racism, socio-economic justice for residents of France's blighted suburban housing projects, and protecting the rights of illegal immigrants in France.

But within a decade, Dieudonné's crusading of leftist causes had brought him in conflict with Israel's policies on Palestine — which in turn seemed to motivate his increasingly controversial comments about Jews in general. By 2007, he was seen getting friendly with his former nemesis Le Pen — at one point turning up as one of the rare minority faces at a National Front party convention. In July 2008, their common interests and outlooks had come close enough together that Le Pen confirmed rumors he'd become the godfather of one of Dieudonné's children.

Le Pen was in the audience that witnessed Dieudonné's odious tribute to negationist Faurisson. Perhaps following that lead, Le Pen himself created a new storm last month by repeating allegations he'd already been convicted for that "the gas chambers were a detail of Second World War history".

So what's behind the dueling outrages? "Without discounting the real roots and feeling of anti-Semitism both men have, most of this is really about drawing attention to a European campaign no one cares about," says Lorrain de Saint-Affrique, a political strategist who advised Le Pen in the 1980s. "Le Pen needs scandal to be elected. Dieudonné is an entertainer using politics to promote his career. Outrage generates headlines — and both men need those." Yet another thing the two have in common.