France Combats Anti-Semitism

Among the most constructive political and military events over the last year have been the actions of France in efforts to control the aggression and advance of Islamic terrorism in the world.  France has done the right thing in sending troops to Mali, helping the regime in the Central African Republic, and insisting on careful monitoring of Iran's nuclear ambitions.

France has now taken a step, symbolically important for the democratic world as well as for its own political well being, in controlling the equally virulent offensiveness of anti-Semitism.  On January 6, 2014, Manuel Valls, French minister of the interior, issued a circular to police, mayors,  and administrative prefects in the country, stating that they could ban the planned public performances in their towns of the comedian/actor Dieudonné M'bala M'bala on the grounds of risks to public order.

Dieudonné, born in Paris to an immigrant Cameroonian father and a native French white mother from Brittany, is a 47-year-old successful performer who promoted anti-racism at the start of his career.  However, this soon changed into outright anti-Semitism and attacks on Israel.  Now, for Dieudonné, Jews are a "fraud."  They have no monopoly on suffering, and racism "was invented by Abraham."  He sees Jewish conspiracy and Zionist plots everywhere -- in politics, media, and business.

He has been convicted seven times for inciting racial hatred through his anti-Semitic remarks.  In one of his shows he portrayed an Orthodox Jewish rabbi giving the Nazi salute and shouting "Isra-heil."  A frequent guest on his programs was Robert Faurisson, the earliest and most well-known French Holocaust denier who, in 1974, wrote there had been no genocide of Jews in World War II.  Purportedly a man of the left, Dieudonné has made overtures to the extreme far right, even inviting Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the Front National party, to be godfather of one of his children.

In recent weeks he has been at his most offensive, insulting the Jewish radio journalist Patrick Cohen, saying, "When I hear Patrick Cohen talking, I say to myself 'Gas Chambers.'"  One of Dieudonné's shows has featured a guest getting a prize for being dressed in concentration camp pajamas.

Dieudonné's hate-peddling has had success with audiences.  Part of that success results from his invention of the "quenelle," which he introduced in a performance in 2005.  This is a gesture that is in essence an inverted Nazi salute.  Dieudonné has announced that he would like to put a quenelle (a ball of fish or meat paste) up the backside of Zionists.  He has accompanied this with his song "Shoananas," a mixture of the Hebrew word for the Holocaust and the French word for pineapple, mocking Holocaust memorials.  The gesture, sometimes accompanied by a display of pineapples, has been picked up and used by others, the most notorious being French Muslim soccer players in England and students in French schools.  It is disturbing that the quenelle has recently become part of a badge of identity for some French youth.

The issue of free speech is of course a contentious one, to which there is no final or definitive answer.  Manuel Valls, the French minister, recognized the nature of Dieudonné's performances.  He realized that they were full of extreme anti-Semitic remarks and insults of  individual Jews and the Jewish community as a whole, and were virulent and shocking attacks on the memory of the victims of the Shoah.

Valls is to be applauded for his forthright position: "We cannot let this speech spread."  After the ban on Dieudonné's performances was struck down by a local court, the French highest court, the Conseil d'État, overruled the decision and upheld the ban on a proposed concert at Nantes.  This decision was not a defeat for civil liberties, but a victory for France, for human dignity, and for the democratic ideals on which the French Republic is based.  Through the decision of its highest court, France has declared that it will not tolerate racial hatred and anti-Semitism.

The ban is justified in the light of French history and principles.  The Declaration of the Rights of Man, approved on August 26, 1789, makes this clear.  Article 11 states, "The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law."

Anyone of sound mind will regard anti-Semitism and Holocaust-denial as abuses of freedom and as moral obscenities.  They are also contrary to modern French laws, especially those of 1972 and 1990.  The 1972 statute bans discrimination, hatred, or violence regarding persons or groups due to their origin or their belonging to an ethnic group, race, or specific religion.  The Gayssot Law of July 1990 bans Holocaust-denial, making it illegal to question the existence of crimes against humanity as defined in the London Charter of August 8, 1945, which was the legal basis for the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi criminals in 1945-46.

The French law had been applied to others judged to be anti-Semitic, such as John Galliano of Dior, who was convicted for racial insult in 2011.  A more outrageous hate-monger is Alain Soral, a writer and film maker, and a friend of Dieudonné, who in a TV broadcast on September 20, 2004 instructed his audience that "[t]here's a psychopathology with Zionism Judaism, something that verges on mental illness."  When the French court in November 2013 examined a group of books considered anti-Semitic it allowed the publication of five questionable books but banned one flagrantly anti-Semitic text and ordered some passages removed from a book edited by Soral.

The question arises as to whether the legal banning of anti-Semitic utterances and behavior in France has serious consequences for freedom of speech.  A slogan prominent in the student demonstrations in France of May 1968 was that "[i]t is forbidden to forbid."  Yet no society can exist without some acceptable limits to free speech.  The mark of democratic systems is that those limits should be as few as possible, should be based on accepted law, and should be monitored by an independent legal system.  By basing its actions to restrain hate speech on respect for human values and the dignity of human beings, the French legal system fulfills the goals for maintaining the principle of free speech.

Maurice Valls and the Conseil d'État were right.  The memory of the ultimate result of anti-Semitism remains potent.  Uncontrolled, uninhibited expression of anti-Semitism may be acceptable to some advocates of free speech and civil rights organizations, but it did lead to the Nazi gas chambers.  It is saddening to note that education, public conferences, and memories of the Holocaust have not ended the output of bigoted extremists.  There should be legal as well as moral boundaries to advocacy or dissemination of anti-Semitism and Holocaust-denial.

Dieudonné, while a comedian, is nevertheless instilling hatred.  He is not a victim or a martyr who should be praised.  Only fellow bigots would admire him for spouting racial hatred and discrimination.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.