Dieudonné and the godgiven right to offend

In the UK, censorship laws creep in, whimpering. In France, they spring in with a loud bang. The explosive New Year news in France is all about a comedian, Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala. Already the name is funny: Dieudonné means ‘godgiven’. But there are some people who think he is anything but.

That is the nature of being a comedian - you make some people laugh and not others. Those who are laughing the least in January 2014 are the media, the French left - intellectuals included - and the entire spectrum of the political class. Not since Lenny Bruce in the USA in the Sixties and Coluche in France in the Eighties have we seen a government so intent on conspiring against an individual whose only job is to try to make you crack up.

Manuel Valls, the minister of the interior, has sent out an edict to the mayors of all the cities in France where ‘Dieudo’ is planning to appear on tour: ‘Ban him or else.’ In doing so, Valls has the full support of the French president, François Hollande. The whole of the state apparatus is baying for Dieudo’s blood and screaming that Republican values are being held in contempt. Freedom of expression is enshrined in the constitution, but that doesn’t seem to be of any importance when it comes to Dieudo.

The latest stage of this farce occurred in Nantes yesterday, where Dieudo was due to play the opening night of his tour. A local judge suspended the interdiction order, allowing the show to go ahead. However, Valls made a successful last-minute appeal to France’s highest court, the Council of State, to reinstate the ban. The result was thousands of booing fans left standing outside the concert hall.

In place of the right to free expression, we have a government obsessed with the fear that incitement to racial hatred (anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism) could create a public-disorder problem. Through using the excuse of ‘prevention of public disorder’, Valls can curtail the principle of freedom of speech on the grounds that too much free expression infringes on human and republican dignity.

However, Dieudo, with a popular and growing following - who think his jokes are more about anti-capitalism and anti-bullshit than attacking minorities - is planning to attack. He may well have a good case. It is difficult in law to deny someone the right to earn a living and French jurisprudence does not have any clear definitions about what constitutes humour and caricature, incitement to hatred and defamation. These are very difficult terrains for anyone to step into; the case will inevitably drag on. You can also bet your last euro that Dieudo will find a top barrister to represent him for a pittance. Publicity is good for business.

The French political elite are playing for high stakes. Instead of calming things down, they have deliberately dramatised a comedy. Let’s not get caught up in being over-sensitive about the sensibilities of ‘racial’ minorities; the issue here is crystal clear. The French government, in clamping down on the right to offend, risks turning a Molière farce into a Racine tragedy.

Julian Lagnado is a writer living in France.

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