On 28 December 2013, West Bromwich Albion strike Nicolas Anelka made an anti-Semitic “quenelle” gesture. Anelka says the gesture was an “anti-establishment” tribute to his friend, the comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. Describing himself primarily as an “anti-Zionist”, Dieudonné has become increasingly politically associated with the fascist far-right.
Yves Coleman, a French activist involved in the journal Ni patrie ni frontières (“No Fatherland, No Borders”), offers a contribution to the discussion about the convergence of “anti-Zionism” with the far-right, and the French left’s response, particularly on the question of state bans.
Dieudonné, the French-African stand-up comedian, began his parallel career in official politics running against the fascist National Front in Dreux in 1997. He participated in “pro-Palestinian” lists for the European elections in 2004 (as part of “Euro-Palestine”) and 2009 (as part of the “Anti-Zionist Party”). He became a close friend of National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and his family in 2006. He met Hugo Chavez in 2006, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 and Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
He is a good businessman, charging €43 (almost six times the minimum hourly wage) to listen to his lousy “jokes” against Jews, homosexuals, women, etc. His “humour” has always been very ambiguous and dubious. His particular form of anti-Zionism is quite common inside the pro-Palestinian movement and wider anarchist/radical “left”, and the anti-Semitic ideas he espouses are commonly found, although often in less explicit and offensive terms, in the anti-globalisation and leftist movements in France. Dieudonné’s defence of the rights of fascists to freedom of expression is often formulated with exactly the same words as those used by so-called left-wing intellectuals (Noam Chomsky, Jean Bricmont, Michel Collon, etc.). Dieudonné takes such stances in explicit alliance with infamous Holocaust deniers such as Robert Faurisson and Pierre Guillaume.
Antiracism in comedy has been complex political territory in France for a long time. Until the end of the 1970s, the majority of prominent stand-ups were Franco-French. Since then, generations of Franco-African comedians (from both Francophone West Africa and the North African “Maghreb”) have emerged, taking racism as their main theme. They attacked the National Front, and tried to offer a Maghrebian, African, or West Indian critical version of French society. However, they did not address the foundations of racism — the icons of French nationalism, the alleged superiority of the “French model of integration”, France’s gourmet reputation, the supposed sexual superiority of French men. These were all elements of nationalist French arrogance, which were portrayed by British or American comedians, but not by French one. Racists were always portrayed as stupid working-class individuals, and never as bourgeois, as politicians, or as intellectuals.
Since the early 1980s, there have been several organised right-wing drives inside mainly-Muslim communities (African and Arab, as well as in West Indian communities) and inside the Jewish community in France. On the Jewish “side”, this was led by intellectuals and members of CRIF (“The Representative Committee of Jewish Institutions in France”). In Black communities, the right-wing and rightwards-moving communalists included Dieudonné, “Tribu KA” (an African anti-Semitic group led by Kémi Séba), the “Anti-Zionist Party” (a coalition involving French fascists, members of the Jewish ultra-orthodox Neturei Karta sect, and Shi’a Muslim organisations financed by Iran), the “Indigènes de la République » (« Natives of the Republic », which campaigned, amongst other things, against “Zionist domination” of French media), and “Euro-Palestine” (which hosted the notorious jazz musician Gilad Atzmon). All these groups attempted to construct alternative historical narratives and memories in each community.
In this nebulous “anti-Zionist” galaxy, which has a strong anti-Semitic subtext, Dieudonné has tried to play the role of a sort of French Farrakhan. He tries to mobilise African and Maghrebian youth who feel that Islam is discriminated against in France. He focuses on the legacy of slavery, but largely stays silent about French military interventions in Africa. At the same time, right-wing Jewish figures like the lawyers Gilles William Goldnagel, and Arno Klarseld, and the philosophers Alain Finkielkraut and Shmuel Trigano, do all they can to criminalise Islam and spread the lunatic idea that “anti-white racism” is growing amongst African and Maghrebian communities.
The “anti-Zionists” consistently equate Israel and Nazism, something the far left has so far been unable to effectively challenge. For example, when Dieudonné, in a 2004 sketch on a TV show, made the Nazi salute and shouted “Isra-Heil!” while dressed as an orthodox Jew, the criticism from the Trotskyist group Lutte Ouvrière was soft, calling the sketch “bad taste”, and saying it could have shocked “good faith” Jews who “condemn the policy of the Israel state”. LO concluded that “in all this, nothing justifies the ostracism which strikes [Dieudonné]. He is virtually, if not officially, banned from public television.” (See here.)
Equating Israel with Nazism was just a bad joke for LO, who repeated Dieudonné’s lies about his supposed “ban” from TV (in fact, after the sketch, he appeared on TV and radio many times, and organised shows all over France). In took LO until 3 January 2014 to realise that “Dieudonné’s anti-Semitism positions are revolting, regardless of how some people try to justify and trivialise them. Some pretend he is only making jokes, or that the issue is simply one of freedom of opinion and expression.” (See here.)
Some have expressed even worse judgement than LO. For example, an article by Antifascist Action from Nantes highlighted the fact that the attacks against Dieudonné in the media arrived “at exactly the same moment” as an Israeli airstrike on Gaza. The statement also condemned Dieudonné for... obscuring the fact that many Jewish victims of the Holocaust were opponents of Zionism!
The AFA statement also includes condemnation of the ban on Dieudonné’s performances proposed by Manuel Valls, the Minister of the Interior. We shall see if those condemning Valls’ ban will tomorrow be as active in defending paperless migrant workers’ rights. Valls wants a wider ban, but the little slap on the wrist the state has so far administered to Dieudonné, which interfered with his latest tour, does not need to be condemned or approved of.
Anti-fascism in France is in a bad way. In radical left and anarchist circles there are tendencies towards both overestimation (claims that the economic crisis is taking us back to the 1930s) and underestimation (from those who emphasise that the National Front is not a “classic” or “pure” fascist party). Even if this is so, the NF could prepare the ground for a new form of fascism, or for a new division of labour between “national-populist” parties who would act electorally on one hand, and, on the other, traditional violent street-fascist grouplets which could do the dirty work of physical attacks, terrorising the workers’ movement, and breaking strikes and demonstrations, with protection from their national-populist allies in official politics.
Defending its own “freedom of expression” has become a key theme for the far right. The left milieu has been unable to properly expose this hypocritical claim coming from fascists. In the anti-globalisaiton movement, and “Indignados” and “Occupy”-style movements, it’s trendy to adopt a stance of saying anyone should be allowed to speak because all opinion are equal. But we cannot let organised fascists or fascist “thinkers” express themselves freely at demonstrations, discussion meetings, etc. The New Anticapitalist Party’s (NPA) reaction to the recent measures taken against Dieudonné largely follows the same trend of emphasising opposition to the ban.
I'm not going to cry if Dieudonné looses money from having to cancel his banned tour, or even if he is thrown in jail for his anti-Semitic and pro-fascist propaganda. I don’t think his ideas are just ideas. In France, racism, Holocaust-denial, and anti-Semitism are considered as crimes, not as ideas open to debate. This is what bothers fascists and Holocaust deniers, as well as some liberals, leftists, and anarchists, who pretend to defend an “absolute” freedom of expression. I will not protest alongside the defenders of Dieudonné, or use the same arguments. And I will certainly refuse to discuss and debate with any militant fascist, racist, or Nazi. Such “debate” can only serve to legitimise fascist ideas, which is exactly what the fascists want.
Ironically the Trotskyist and anarchist groups have never authorised an absolute freedom of expression inside their own organisations. They expel dissidents, slander them, and sometimes threaten them physically. In social movements they tend to undemocratically take control of strike committees, student assemblies, trade unions, etc., because they think they have the right line. If there was a revolutionary situation, I doubt they would defend absolute freedom of expression for their reactionary opponents. The Bolsheviks did not let the Tsarists, or even the Mensheviks, and certainly not the anarchists, speak and write freely. The Spanish CNT did not let Francoist partisans freely spread their reactionary propaganda. So why should we defend absolute freedom of expression for our class enemies if our historical role models didn’t do so, and if we are ready to limit absolute freedom of expression if the situation calls for it?
The question of anti-Semitism, and the growth of nationalist and fascist ideas amongst Franco-French and non-Franco-French workers, will become serious long-term problems if they are not confronted head-on.