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Dieudonné

Dieudonné

1966—

Comedian

Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, who is known professionally as simply "Dieudonné," is France's most controversial comedian. He rose to fame in the early 1990s as part of a duo who poked fun at long-standing racial and religious stereotypes in France, but since 1997 Dieudonné has been a solo performer and has come under increasing scrutiny for his anti-Semitic remarks. Despite the debate about his humor, and the legal actions taken against him, Dieudonné remains one of France's most popular performers. "A brilliant mimic, he manages to transform himself, in a few deft gestures, into dozens of characters," wrote Tom Reiss in a 2007 New Yorker profile. "His shows, which are usually sold out, aren't primarily attended by young minority men or skinhead rabble-rousers but by hip middle-class white Parisians."

Dieudonné was born in 1966 in Fontenay-aux-Roses, a section of Paris, and is biracial. His mother hails from Brittany, the area of France that abuts the Atlantic Ocean, and his father was a native of Cameroon, a West African nation that was a colonial possession of France until 1960. They divorced when Dieudonné was still an infant, and his father returned to Cameroon. In Paris Dieudonné attended a Roman Catholic high school, completed a vocational-college training program in computer science, then spent several years in a variety of sales jobs while working on his stand-up comedy routine. In 1992 he teamed with his childhood friend, Elie Semoun, who was Jewish. Their act skewered racist attitudes of all kinds and poked fun at an assortment of French national icons, both living and dead, and within two years they had a strong following. The New Yorker's Reiss described their standard performance as "a satire of the life of the French underclass, in which they played a pair of gun-and-knife-wielding delinquents, as well as the local cops, the two-faced journalists, and the intellectuals in black-framed glasses called in to comment on moral decline and social alienation."

Comedy Took a More Sinister Tone

In the mid-1990s Dieudonné and Semoun had a falling-out, and Dieudonné became a solo act and branched out into a film career with supporting roles in several French comedies. He also entered politics, standing as a candidate for a seat in the National Assembly in the 1997 elections from Dreux, a town in northwest France. Dreux had been a stronghold for the past decade of the National Front, a far-right party founded by the country's most notorious extreme-right politician, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 1972 and known for its xenophobic views. Dieudonné—who, according to the New Yorker's Reiss, "declared that his main purpose was to fight the racist influence of the National Front"—won just eight percent of the Dreux vote, but the Front's candidate lost, which many considered a victory. Dieudonné for a time teamed with French film legend Catherine Deneuve to establish a youth center in the city, and in 2000 he was honored by the United Nations as a goodwill ambassador in the fight against racism.

In his solo act Dieudonné was initially critical of almost all organized religions, but in early 2002 he began to make negative remarks about Jews and Israel, while praising al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden for challenging U.S. foreign policy. At first, some of Dieudonné's fans took these remarks as part of his act, as perhaps a postmodern parody of a right-wing anti-Semite, but it became apparent after a few months that Dieudonné was making the statements in all seriousness. He was brought up on charges of justifying terrorist acts for one of his comments, and then in December of 2003 he caused a national uproar when he appeared as a commentator on one of the numerous political chat shows that are a staple of French television. Wearing a black ski mask along with a type of hat commonly worn by ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, he directed some remarks at audience members of North African and Arab ethnicities, urging them to "join the axis of good, the American-Zionist axis," according to a report by Meg Bortin in the International Herald Tribune. He finished the tirade by delivering the one-armed salute of the Nazi Party and shouting out "Isra-Heil!"

For this incident, Dieudonné was prosecuted by Jewish groups and the French government for violating a French law banning speech deemed to incite racial or religious hatred. He countered with his own lawsuit regarding a racist text message that appeared on the same television show a week later referring to his African heritage, and the court ruled in his favor. In February of 2004 a scheduled performance of his in the city of Lyon was halted after a smoke bomb exploded and the theater had to be evacuated. He returned a few months later with a new act that was billed as "Mes Excuses" ("My Apologies"), but it instead derided France's hate-speech laws as a violation of freedom of speech. In January of 2005 he made inflammatory statements about the solemn anniversary being observed that month—the sixtieth year of the liberation of Auschwitz, one of Nazi Germany's many concentration camps designed for the mass execution of Jews. Dieudonné claimed that the frequent mentions of the crimes of the Holocaust amounted to a form of "memorial pornography."

Entered the Presidential Race

Despite his provocative pronouncements, Dieudonné is a popular figure in France, and he is often stopped on the street by autograph-seekers. One of the targets of Dieudonné's on-stage ire is the renowned philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who is Jewish. As Levy—so famous in France that he is often referred to simply as "BHL"—explained to Reiss in the New Yorker article, "In France, being an anti-Semite in the old way does not work…. You will not raise a mass movement by saying the Jews killed Christ—nobody cares…. But anti-racist anti-Semitism—saying that for the sake of the blacks, for the sake of the Arabs, we must make the Jews shut up—this works. If the Jews practiced ‘memorial pornography’—thus exaggerating their own suffering—they became responsible for why the world didn't care enough about the history of slavery and the suffering of blacks."

Racial and religious tensions had been simmering in France for some time, and Dieudonné's notoriety seemed to reflect the unease about rising numbers of African and Arab immigrants in France. The overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation also fretted about the issue of head scarves in public schools, which reached a near-crisis point in 2004 after the National Assembly voted to ban all items of clothing that serve as religious symbols in the public schools. In the fall of 2005, riots erupted in the French suburbs, known as banlieues, that feature public-housing-like high-rise buildings and are home to large numbers of first- and second-generation immigrant families. A few weeks later Dieudonné declared himself a candidate in the 2007 presidential elections.

At a Glance …

Born February 11, 1966, in Paris, France; son of an accountant and a filmmaker; father of four children.

Career: Worked as a salesperson, late 1980s; began performing career as part of a stand-up comedy duo with Elie Semoun, 1992; solo act after 1997; actor in films.

Addresses: Home—France.

New court cases both against Dieudonné and instigated by him preoccupied the comedian in 2006, but he also found time to make a highly publicized visit to Lebanon in August, where he met with leaders of the Islamic resistance movement Hezbollah, as well as Jesse Jack- son, the U.S. civil-rights activist. In October Dieudonné announced he was withdrawing his name from the presidential race, but a few weeks later he appeared at a political rally for Le Pen's National Front. He was even photographed shaking hands with Le Pen who, like Dieudonné, was known for several widely publicized anti-Semitic remarks; what puzzled commentators about the odd alliance was the fact that Le Pen had for years been a vociferous opponent of the very type of immigration laws that had allowed Dieudonné's father to settle in France.

In March of 2007 Dieudonné invited journalists to the premier of a film he made about his trip to Cameroon. Accompanying him to the premier was Jany Le Pen, the wife of the National Front leader. Some of the film's footage showed the negative consequences suffered by one of Cameroon's minorities, the Baka Pygmy. They are one of the oldest known ethnic groups in Central Africa and remain a largely hunter-gatherer society. Deforestation by multinational corporations, however, is proving to be a far more dangerous threat to their way of life than European incursions of previous centuries. Dieudonné stated that his mission in life was to speak freely, even if his statements trod the line between free speech and hate speech. "I will continue to clown around, whatever happens," he told Reiss in the New Yorker interview. "I have nothing to lose. I am like a Pygmy in his forest who sees the big trees falling and says, ‘Let's go, let's go!’ The French Revolution is my tradition. It's a mind-set of the French, that you need a revolution. I am deeply French."

Selected films

Le Déménagement, 1997.

Didier, 1997.

Le Passager, 1997.

Le Clone, 1998.

Le Derrière, 1999.

Vive nous!, 2000.

Voyance et manigance, 2001.

Philosophale, 2001.

Raisons économiques, 2002.

Astérix & Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre, 2002.

Casablanca Driver, 2004.

Sources

Periodicals

International Herald Tribune, January 5, 2007, p. 2.

New Yorker, November 19, 2007, p. 44.

New York Times, February 20, 2004, p. A11.

Online

Crumley, Bruce, "Racism Unfiltered in France," Time.com, January 6, 2007, http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1574817,00.htm (accessed March 5, 2008).

—Carol Brennan

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