Issue 4 - Spring 2007 - The Big Issue
NOTES FROM THE ASYLUM
How the French fell for an anti-Semitic comedian
BY SAMUEL BLUMENFELD
Translated by Charles Phillips
Dieudonné never could get a chuckle out of me, even in the 1990s when he and his partner Elie Semoun kept France in stitches. In a way, a black man and a Jew working as a comedy team symbolized the naive fraternity that had emerged a decade earlier, when the French still believed that minority-group solidarity could stem the rising tide of the Front National, a neo-fascist movement.
But in August 2001 I started to get an eerie feeling about Dieudonné. He was, by then, a solo act, with ambitions to run in the 2002 presidential election and “fight the arrogance of a state that was white, sectarian, phallocratic, and Catholic.” I had harbored the illusion that someone like Louis Farrakhan could exist only in America: too irrational, too loony to dupe old Europe. How wrong I was! Dieudonné became our Farrakhan. He said he wanted to abolish our laws, eliminate our income tax, and “hand the power back to sixty million presidents.”
“I’ll give you a ‘freestyle’ presidency,” he vowed.
Ultimately, Dieudonné didn’t run, failing to garner the 500 signatures of elected officials he needed to get on the ballot. But that hasn’t prevented him from becoming a man of his time. He personifies an era marked by the second intifada, September 11, the resurgence of anti-Semitic attacks on French soil, and the continuous comparison of Israel with former Nazi Germany — all in the course of “speaking out” for universal human values.
As France has struggled to find its way, Dieudonné has lost his mind. He has set up headquarters at the Théâtre de la Main d’Or, a small, 300-seat venue in the north end of Paris, where he fires off his political invective. Jews (“Zionists”) are his favorite target. They control the media, he says. According to him, “Zionists” have made their cult of martyrdom a central issue in public discourse. He would have us believe that Jews exploit the Shoah for commercial and political gain, that they use Auschwitz as a pretext to cover up their participation in the slave trade, to snuff out the memory of slavery and massacre Palestinians. He has even gone so far as to say that Jews may have invented AIDS.
In a healthy French republic, with our hate-speech laws effectively applied (here you cannot utter racial statements publicly), Dieudonné would have spent a few weeks behind bars. Instead, benefiting from the extreme leniency of judges, he has won acquittal after acquittal. One would suppose that in the twenty-first century, any man declaring that “Jews are slave traders turned bankers” would surely wind up in a warm cell for the winter, but friends and colleagues at Le Monde and other newspapers told me it wasn’t that simple. Dieudonné is fighting to keep the memory of slavery alive, they said. Wasn’t it time to give black genocide equal treatment? We should keep talking about the Holocaust, of course, but maybe with a little more discretion? And what could be more just than the Palestinians’ struggle against Zionist occupation? Sure, people told me, his words were unfortunate. His ideas, however, were worth considering.
Dieudonné kept his hand in politics and headed the Euro-Palestine list during the European elections of 2004 (the goal of the Euro-Palestine list was to promote the birth of a binational state in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, with a right of return for five million Palestinians). What was a pro-Palestinian candidate doing in the European elections? The aim, according to Dieudonné, was to alert citizens to the dangers of a France that had become an “occupied Zionist territory.” And he had company: he was defended by a raft of celebrities, including Robert Ménard, Reporters without Borders secretary-general, and Benoît Delépine, a writer on French TV’s most popular satirical program, Guignols — a sort of French Jon Stewart.
In December of that year, Dieudonné strode onto the stage at the Zénith, one of the biggest concert halls in Paris, and ripped into the Zionists: they “always stab you in the back,” he said. He was followed by Jamel Debbouze, France’s most celebrated comedian, and one of the country’s few movie stars, who said “Dieudonné has the balls to say what the rest of us think.” A chill ran through me that evening. The joy went out of Hanukkah. I felt as if I were in the middle of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake, in which anti-Semitism was the contagion, and it was rampant.
Surprisingly, salvation came from Dieudonné himself. I was able to breathe a little easier last August when Israel’s intervention in Lebanon ended and Dieudonné traveled there, accompanied by conspiracy theorist Thierry Meyssan, the author of an essay that maintains that September 11 was an American plot involving a remote-controlled attack on the twin towers; ex–Front National member Marc Robert; and pro-Islamist writer Alain Soral. In the Land of the Cedars, Dieudonné visited the headquarters of Hezbollah’s television station, Al-Manar. All revved up, he flew back to Paris with his associates, vowing to “import Hezbollah tactics into France.” I laughed. Then he said he’d finally realized what the news independent of government control was all about when he watched Syrian television. I laughed till I cried. It was unbelievable.
Others came around in November when Dieudonné showed up at the fête bleu-blanc-rouge, the Front National’s annual rally. He went of his own free will to shake Front National President Jean-Marie Le Pen’s hand, to listen, and maybe even to vote for him. The next day, a headline in the English daily The Independent read: only in france: ONLY IN FRANCE: THE BLACK, ANTI-SEMITIC COMEDIAN AT A RALLY OF LE PEN’S FAR RIGHT.
But the sight of a black man cozying up to a fascist leader isn’t new. I’ve seen it before, in a movie: Shock Corridor, an old Samuel Fuller flick. Fuller had the brilliant idea of toting his camera into an insane asylum — a metaphor for America. In the film, we see a delusional black man driven mad by white racism. He thinks he’s a member of the Ku Klux Klan and wears a headdress made out of a pillowcase. When I watched it, I thought, “Only in America.” I was wrong. France is starting to resemble the Shock Corridor asylum, and while it may seem comical from your side of the Atlantic, to me and millions of my fellow inmates, it’s not so funny.
Does anyone have the key to get us out of here? &