Once liberal, Dieudonné is now a vocal anti-Semite. Photograph by William Klein.
Once liberal, Dieudonné is now a vocal anti-Semite. Photograph by William Klein.
One day last March, on the stage of a theatre in central Paris, a light-skinned black man named Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala sat with his hands clasped over his knees. Next to him, smiling into the lights, was Jany Le Pen, the wife of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right and xenophobic party, the National Front. Dieudonné (he is known only by his first name) is one of France’s most successful comedians—once viewed as something of a cross between Lenny Bruce and Sacha Baron Cohen. In recent years, though, his political career has overshadowed his comedy, and he has won a reputation as a committed and vocal anti-Semite. In October, 2006, he dropped out of the 2007 Presidential campaign, after running on an anti-Zionist, “utopian-anarchist” ticket.
The event with Madame Le Pen had been announced on Les Ogres, the Web site that publishes his news and airs videos on him. (The name is an acronym for “geographic, religious, ethnic, and social overtures.”) The son of a Cameroonese father and a white French mother, Dieudonné had just returned from Cameroon, where he had filmed with Madame Le Pen their encounters with that country’s suffering Baka Pygmy population. The room was filled with journalists from France’s main newspapers and television stations.
In the film, Dieudonné and Madame Le Pen, who is in her seventies, are shown trekking through the jungle and holding malnourished Pygmy children in their arms; in one segment they pay for medical treatment for twin girls. After the film, Dieudonné spoke about the plight of the Pygmies—the “little elves of the forest”—who, he said, were victims of a “genocide” being carried out by the logging industry. In addition to the logging trucks, “there is a crossbreeding that amounts to a rape of the Pygmies, the most ancient civilization in the world,” he said, apparently referring to intermarriage between Pygmies and other Cameroonians. (Pygmies number nearly forty thousand in Cameroon, or about a quarter of one per cent of its population.) “I propose to bring seven Pygmies here to France to meet the different Presidential candidates and ask them some questions.” He looked sternly at the crowd.
Dieudonné is not known for his stance on this indigenous people and their troubles. Rather, he is known for turning the most unlikely cause into a vehicle for attacking Jews. Some of his references to the deforestation of the Pygmies’ lands were apparently allusions to Bernard-Henri Lévy, the Jewish writer and commentator known as BHL, who is the heir to France’s second-largest lumber fortune and who has become one of Dieudonné’s fiercest critics. Two years ago, before the comic publicly associated with members of the National Front but well into his anti-Semitic phase, Lévy wrote, in his weekly column in Le Point, “Le Pen only had daughters. . . . Well, this has been rectified. Time, that benevolent mother, is giving him sons—finally one, in any case, Dieudonné.”
Dressed in black jeans and stylish hiking boots, Dieudonné paced back and forth across the stage, hunching his shoulders with a caged, muscular energy. Journalists shouted questions across the political spectrum, and Dieudonné replied calmly, “Each person has his own political criterion. For some, it is unemployment; for others, security. For me, it will be Pygmies.”
In February, Dieudonné had spent a “resistance weekend” (resistance to the Zionist conspiracy, that is) in Tehran, where he was interviewed on two television channels and expressed support for Iran’s nuclear program and for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s opposition to American hegemony. His political career is a source of consternation to many in France—among them former friends and colleagues. “I knew Dieudonné a few years ago, and he was a gentleman—very funny, very witty, ironic, very wise,” Ariel Wizman, a popular French d.j. who also hosts “Idées Fortes,” a current-events talk show, told me. “Lots of things would come out of his mouth that were intellectually and morally challenging, as well as hilarious. I can’t explain what happened to Dieudo except for deep psychological problems combined with the fact that once he came out this way, went down this road, it was impossible to go back.”
By the late nineteen-nineties, Dieudonné had made enough money from show business to buy the Théâtre de la Main d’Or. For six years, until 1997, his stage and television partner was Elie Semoun, a Jewish comic and a childhood friend; their act parodied bigotry of all sorts. Wizman recalled that when he first knew Dieudonné he would “make fun of racism from both sides—to develop a really sophisticated, witty position.”
Dieudonné signalled his “conversion” in early 2002, in two separate magazine interviews, in which he remarked that he preferred “the charisma of bin Laden to that of George Bush” and that Judaism is “a scam. It’s one of the worst, because it’s the first.” His comments were initially taken as bizarre satire, absurdist politics à la Stephen Colbert, but it gradually became clear that Dieudonné meant what he said. No one knows why he developed this obsession. Many of his critics speculate that he used anti-Semitism as a way to increase his wealth and fame, but this seems unlikely, since he was at the peak of his career before his political “coming out,” and his extreme positions seem to have cost him many mainstream film and television roles.
Pierre-André Taguieff, a French specialist on racism, told me that Dieudonné in some ways reminds him of Céline, who, in 1937, “sensed something in the air, coming partly from abroad, from Germany and other parts of Europe, and partly from France—a feeling that anti-Semitism was becoming a strong cause, with a broad resonance, across the political spectrum. I think Dieudonné sensed a similar thing in 2001 to 2002, after the second intifada.” He went on, “I think our Dieudonné has quite a keen intuition for the movements of public opinion, and he immediately sought to instrumentalize this creeping anti-Semitism in public opinion by bringing it into his sketches, as a popular provocation, as a means of connecting with people on a visceral level. Dieudonné is a provocateur; he exists through provocation.” Whatever the motivation, the charges of anti-Semitism moved him from the entertainment section to the front pages.
Dieudonné’s new stance coincided with the greatest increase in anti-Semitic violence in France since the Second World War. Since 2002, there has been a wave of attacks against Jewish “persons or property” in France, a great many of them committed by young men living outside Paris, in the vast ghettos called les banlieues. Dieudonné is a folk hero in these neighborhoods, which are populated largely by black and Arab immigrants—places where anti-Semitism is fed by secondhand Palestinian politics, Islamism, and alienation from French society. How much Dieudonné has done to ride (or to create) this wave has been a popular topic in France.
France, with a population of about sixty million, has the world’s third-largest Jewish population—about half a million. Nowhere else except the United States and Israel (which have a combined Jewish population of more than ten million) do Jews play as prominent a role in cultural, business, and political affairs. France has had Jewish Prime Ministers, like Léon Blum and Pierre Mendès-France, and the current top ranks of French politics include Jewish politicians such as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former finance minister; Laurent Fabius, the former Prime Minister; and Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s President, whose grandfather was Jewish. Until 2005, France had the only senior Catholic prelate in modern times who was born Jewish and still considered himself culturally Jewish, Cardinal Lustiger. The Jewish exodus from North Africa, in the late nineteen-fifties and the nineteen-sixties, brought hundreds of thousands of Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian Jews to France.
France had long been seen as a promised land for Jews, even as it was also a center of world anti-Semitism. The Action Française, the right-wing movement that emerged from the Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish Army captain was falsely accused of spying, and its descendant, the National Front, are seen as the natural home of French anti-Semitism. But the left has its own problematic history, going back to the French Revolution, when Jews provoked hostility for keeping their religious identity while accepting full citizenship in accord with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Dieudonné’s anti-Semitism draws more from the left tradition: his attacks on Jewish capitalism mimic the worst tics of French socialism (even the revered socialist leader Jean Jaurès once wrote that the Jewish race “is consumed by a sort of fever for profit when it is not by the fever for prophesy”). And though Dieudonné attacks all “religious superstition” in his shows, he echoes Voltaire in singling out Jewish rituals and beliefs.
“Dieudonné is the spokesman, the godfather, the icon of a new kind of anti-Semitism,” Alain Finkielkraut, the philosopher and memoirist of Jewish identity, told me. “It is an explicitly anti-racist anti-Semitism, which inverts traditional anti-Semitism by asserting that the Nazis today are in fact the Jews. The idiom of anti-Semitism is no longer racism; it is now anti-racism. Dieudonné’s followers say that they don’t hate Jews, they hate Jewish racism. They say that Israel is like Nazism, like apartheid. ”
For fifty years, debates about French anti-Semitism mainly revolved around France’s record during the Second World War, when the Vichy government collaborated with the Germans. (Roughly seventy-five per cent of France’s Jewish population survived the Holocaust.) Marcel Ophuls’s 1969 film, “The Sorrow and the Pity,” and the trials of high-ranking French officials brought about a public recognition of France’s role; in 1995, President Jacques Chirac ended a half century of official silence by acknowledging French responsibility in the roundup of nearly thirteen thousand Jews—more than four thousand of them children—for deportation to Auschwitz in July, 1942. This gesture was seen as an important step, but some now believe that it helped launch a new generation of racial discord—a competition of historical grievances against the state.
Yet Dieudonné’s humor is rooted in an intense, anthropological examination of French society that goes far beyond mocking Jews. A brilliant mimic, he manages to transform himself, in a few deft gestures, into dozens of characters. 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; many seem to be couples.
In his current show, Dieudonné satirizes human-rights organizations like S.O.S. Racisme—a French group that he once supported but now dismisses as “S.O.S. Zionism.” He plays a bored operator for an “S.O.S. Endangered Species” hot line taking calls from a panda, a butterfly, and a harpooned whale: “I know that it hurts to be harpooned; you don’t need to scream! They have no right to do so, you’re a protected species . . . they’re reeling you in? Well, refuse, ma’am! Refuse!” Another routine portrays a high-school parent-teacher conference about the controversial 2004 law banning religious garb, including Muslim head scarves, in French public schools. The ethnic impersonations are all intended to offend, but as Monsieur Blumenthal, a Jewish student’s father, Dieudonné is pure malevolence: “When this young girl, obviously from Hezbollah, dons her cheap fabric, this veil of bin Laden, what is her objective? Nothing less than the extermination of an entire population! And that will never happen again, do you hear me?” Fingering a gold chain on his wrist, Monsieur Blumenthal proposes a “big campaign to combat anti-Semitism” that would include blinking anti-Auschwitz pins and “a DVD that will be given to every student, for free, which only lasts nine hours, so the kids will be able to look at it on Saturdays, on national holidays, and during their vacations.” (“Shoah,” the 1985 Holocaust documentary by the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, is nine hours long, though the DVD version that he distributes in the French public- school system contains only excerpts.)
When I met with Dieudonné for the first time, in March, at a Starbucks, he explained his longtime fascination with the Code Noir, an edict issued by Louis XIV, in 1685, outlining the rules of slavery in the French colonial empire. “Fortunes were made in the slave trade that are taboo subjects today,” he said. He noted that the King had, in the first article of the code, banned Jews from participating. Why would he do so, Dieudonné asked, “if it were not because they were very involved in the trade?” I asked him if he had a problem with Jews. He replied that he had no problem with individual Jews, but “if you are French and attached to the philosophy of the Enlightenment—the universal—you do not recognize this border” between groups.
Dieudonné was born in Fontenay-aux-Roses, outside Paris, in 1966, and grew up in the city’s middle-class southern suburbs. His father, an accountant, lived in Cameroon, and Dieudonné was brought up by his mother (his parents divorced when he was one); she made instructional videos on safety in the workplace. He attended Catholic school, though his mother was a New Age Buddhist. As a teen-ager, he was adept at judo and played the piano and the jazz saxophone in the style of Parker and Coltrane. He knew from a young age that he wanted to be a comedian, and after getting his baccalaureate (in computer science) he began writing and practicing routines with his childhood pal Semoun. They performed in local cafés and bars, while Dieudonné worked as a salesman—cars, telephones, photocopy machines. In 1992, a Paris comedian spotted them and helped them stage their first professional show.
By 1994, Elie and Dieudo—“the crazed little Jew and the big mysterious black man,” as the newspaper Le Parisien described them—were famous. Their act, a multicultural, banlieue version of Laurel and Hardy, was 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. Elie and Dieudo also parodied Scientologists, neo-Nazis, and the Foreign Legion. After a six-month, sold-out run at the Palais des Glaces and an international tour, in 1996, the pair split—one source suggested that the cause was a financial dispute—but a year later they worked together in a film called “Le Clone.”
During the first years of his solo career, Dieudonné continued to parody racism, performing all over France. He also appeared in several movies, with actresses such as Emmanuelle Béart; his favorite role, he told me, was playing a gay proctologist who was the lover of Claude Rich in the cross-dressing 1999 comedy “Le Derrière.” Dieudonné entered politics in 1997, when he ran for the National Assembly in the Dreux district. He declared that his main purpose was to fight the racist influence of the National Front, whose first electoral victory took place in Dreux in 1983, when it won control of the city council. Dieudonné won only eight per cent of the vote, but that showing contributed to the defeat of the National Front candidate. In 1997, he and Catherine Deneuve sponsored a proposal for a youth project in Dreux, and in 2000 he was designated an honorary Ambassador of Good Will in the Fight Against Racism by the United Nations.
The beginning of l’affaire Dieudonné came in December, 2003, when he appeared on “You Can’t Please Everyone,” a popular political talk show, in which celebrities discussed issues in a civil roundtable atmosphere. To the surprise of everyone there, he arrived on the set wearing a camo jacket, a black ski mask, and an Orthodox Jewish hat with fake sidelocks. He launched into a speech that called on the audience to join “the Americano-Zionist Axis—the only one . . . that offers you happiness, and the only one to give you a chance of living a little bit longer.” While the panel of comedians invited for the show (it included Jamel Debbouze, France’s most popular Muslim comic) laughed, the show’s host, Marc-Olivier Fogiel, looked on nervously. Dieudonné finished his polemic by raising his arm and crying, “Isra-heil.” He then took off his mask and joined the panel, to a standing ovation.
In France, civil-rights laws focus more on hate speech than on discrimination; the French government and Jewish groups sued Dieudonné for “defamation of a racial nature.” Dieudonné countered with a suit against his host, Fogiel, contending that a text message that appeared onscreen on the show the following week—it read, “Dieudo, will you find sketches on the smell of blacks funny?”—was itself racist, and won. The affair escalated. On February 5th, firemen in Lyon evacuated a thousand people from a Dieudonné performance after a smoke bomb was thrown; the event caused theatres in several other cities to cancel performances. Thousands of fans marched in protest.
Dieudonné’s former partner, Elie Semoun, published an open letter to Dieudonné in the newspaper Libération, in February, 2004: “Hi Buffoon!” it began, and continued, “It’s the little Jew . . . writing to you to tell you that I like you and that you are hurting me . . . you are no longer the person whom I knew and with whom I laughed like I never could with anyone else. . . . You and me, we made fun of everyone, people loved it . . . but that’s why I feel so betrayed, you are not the same Dieudo.” Dieudonné’s mother followed this with an open letter to Semoun: “I don’t imagine for a second that you didn’t understand the universal and humanistic vision that Dieudonné is expressing by ridiculing—in his own caustic way!—all the extreme identifications people hold to religions, races and politics.”
Two months later, Dieudonné opened a show at the Main d’Or called “Mes Excuses,” but those who thought he was going to apologize were mistaken. The curtain rose on a dark, smoky landscape more reminiscent of Beckett than of standup comedy. A choir could be heard, chanting dolefully, and then Dieudonné staggered onto the stage. He was dressed in black and was almost invisible. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” he wailed. “I’m sorry, O Chosen People. Forgive the beast that I am, the offenses that I have caused, but I have no soul.” He laughed and snarled. “My words are but meaningless grunts. They make no sense, no sense. I submit to your greatness, O Chosen People! Thank you for having spared me, master.” He then suddenly snapped upright, one fist raised. “Fuck you up the ass, O master!” he shouted.
As Dieudonné proceeded to his multi-character sketches, the sound crew appeared onstage, surrounded by prison bars. The men, who were wearing the blue helmets of U.N. soldiers, pretended to monitor Dieudonné’s jokes for unacceptable content. When he said the word “Palestinian,” they shut off his microphone and explained their rules: the first time he pronounced that word, they would shut off the sound; the second time, they would turn out the lights; and the third time they would evacuate the theatre. Dieudonné declared that he’d been put under supervision and deemed unfit to express himself. It’s Bernard Henri-Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut “who speak for me,” he said.
Dieudonné gave two performances of “Mes Excuses” in Algeria in early 2005, and held a press conference at which he told his Algerian audience that those in power in France—here he specifically mentioned Jean-Pierre Rafarrin, the French Prime Minister—are forced to “lick the ass” of the C.R.I.F., France’s main Jewish organization, and called the group “a Mafia that controls the republic.” He also said that “the Zionist lobby cultivates the idea of their unique suffering,” adding that “a war has been declared on blacks.” A news report on the now defunct site, ProcheOrient.info, which quoted Dieudonné as referring to the Shoah as “memorial pornography,” caused an uproar.
The French minister of justice, Dominique Perben, demanded an inquiry into Dieudonné’s “contestation of crimes against humanity,” and the Paris public prosecutor’s office began an investigation. Upon his return to France, Dieudonné insisted that he had been misquoted and showed an excerpt of the conference to prove it. “I never made that statement, which is insulting to the memory of the Shoah and is against the law,” he said, explaining that he was referring to the commemoration of the Holocaust rather than to the Holocaust itself. (On September 11th of this year, a Paris court found him guilty of complicity in slandering “a group of persons on the grounds of race, religion, or origin” and fined him nine thousand seven hundred dollars; neither Dieudonné nor his lawyer attended the proceeding.) There were more clashes with protesters, and when Dieudonné travelled to Martinique that spring he was assaulted at the airport by a small group of demonstrators, who he alleged were Israeli agents. His shows continued to sell out, and more performances were added to his tour.
>From the stage of the Main d’Or, Dieudonné mocked his attackers. “Every time Bernard Lévy writes about me, it’s ‘Dieudonné, bastard!’ ‘Anti-Semite!’ ‘Anti-Semite!’ As soon as anything annoys him—‘Anti-Semite!’ It’s a great system, really.” Dieudonné swatted an imaginary mosquito on his cheek, shouting, “Anti-Semite!”
Bernard-Henri Lévy’s apartment on the Boulevard St. Germain reflects why, to the modern French anti-Semite, the initials “BHL” represent what the name Rothschild once did: the ultimate international Jew, running a global plot from the finest address in Paris.
“In France, being an anti-Semite in the old way does not work,” Lévy said when I asked him about Dieudonné. “You will not raise a mass movement by saying the Jews killed Christ—nobody cares. Accuse them of having invented Christ, like Voltaire did in the eighteenth century, still nobody cares. As far as being a special race, nobody believes that anymore. 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. Dieudonné and his followers suppose that the capacity for empathy and the capacity for indignation is limited. But the brain doesn’t work like this—you can care about the Holocaust and slavery. The more you are concerned by one, the more you are likely to be concerned by the other.”
Philippe Val, an idiosyncratic hero of the French left and the editor of the biting satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, says that Dieudonné “pushes us to transgress the very basis of our culture and politics—the knowledge that we have constructed on the ruins of Auschwitz. We are constructed upon that. Modern European democracy started from there. If you want to tear it all apart, the ultimate destructive anarchist gesture, there is no better place to start.”
As Dieudonné was ostracized by the mainstream media and the political establishment, he made new friends—people like Thierry Meyssan, the author of the much translated 2002 book “L’Effroyable Imposture” (“The Big Lie”), which suggests that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were a plot hatched by elements of the U.S. military-industrial complex; Ginette Skandrani, a staunch Palestinian activist and a co-founder of France’s Green Party; and Alain Soral, a writer for and adviser to Le Pen. Soral thought that by recruiting Dieudonné, a black celebrity, he could help break the National Front’s image as a “whites only” party and appeal to a new constituency: Africans and Arabs from the banlieue.
“Dieudonné and I follow in the Voltairean French tradition of freethinking,” Soral said when I met with him at the Café de la Mairie, on the Place Saint-Sulpice. Soral is an amateur boxer, and as we spoke he poked me in the chest to make his points. He furiously rubbed the Formica tabletop and cursed the state of France, the café, slobs—so much filth. “When a Jew tells you, ‘We dominate the world,’ you have to pretend that you didn’t hear right, because if you say, ‘Look, he told me over coffee that he dominated the world,’ you go to prison.” Soral went on, “Dieudonné and I fight for French independence, democracy, freedom. People can speak about these things only in private, but so many people think like I do.”
As if on cue, a man who had been sitting in a booth nearby got up and said, “Gentlemen, I just want to say that for the last hour you have been saying what so many of us feel in our bones but are afraid to say. There is a secret force occupying this land—it’s why I left for Quebec.” The man had long, graying hair and was carrying an expensive-looking briefcase. When I asked him his name and profession, he said, “No, no, there are hidden cameras everywhere! They get it on tape and they can sue me, sue you, the new laws.” As we left the café, Soral said, “Well, who knows who he was. Anyway, he’s gone to Canada—I know a lot of people who are leaving.”
On February 13, 2006, Ilan Halimi, a twenty-three-year-old cell-phone salesman, was found—naked, gagged, and handcuffed—near a train station south of Paris. He had burns and traces of torture on eighty per cent of his body, and died on the way to the hospital. Halimi had been kidnapped and held for three weeks in a cellar in the suburb of Bagneux. The police traced the crime to a group that became known as “the gang of Barbarians,” allegedly led by Youssouf Fofana, the twenty-five-year-old son of African immigrants, and determined that Halimi had been abducted because he was Jewish. Eighteen people were arrested in France, and after a manhunt that led to the Ivory Coast, Fofana was taken into custody. Fofana denied killing Halimi, and that his actions were motivated by race, but other detainees told the police that “Jews have money,” and that they believed that Halimi’s parents, a working-class couple, or “the rabbi” would pay half a million dollars for Halimi’s release.
Sammy Ghozlan, the head of a French group that monitors anti-Semitism, said that the words of an “alleged comedian” influenced the killers, and Julien Dray, the spokesman for the Socialist Party and a founder of S.O.S. Racisme, declared that Halimi’s death was a result of “the Dieudonné effect.” Dieudonné denounced Dray for throwing around murder accusations lightly. In a statement he released at the time, Dieudonné attributed the torture-abduction to the neo-liberalism that “has established the cult of profit as the central value of society” and to the “American drift in French society.” On February 26, 2006, pamphlets depicting Dieudonné and Fofana above the words “Thinker. Murderer” were distributed during a March in Paris to protest Halimi’s murder.While French politicians were holding vigils for Halimi, Dieudonné invited to his theatre the family of another victim of a kidnap-murder and called for an end to the “discrimination among victims” that allegedly favored Jews. A few days later, Dieudonné held a rally on the theme of “Republican equality against discrimination among victims,” adding an Algerian and an Armenian to the list of those whose killings had gotten scant notice. At about this time, Dieudonné added to his show impersonations of Hitler (“You’ll see, the future will present me as a moderate!”) and the French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson.
In Bagneux, the suburb where Halimi was murdered, Jean-Claude Tchicaya, a government social worker, organizes workshops and field trips to foster understanding among blacks, Arabs, and Jews. “Halimi was tortured in the town where I live, in the neighborhood where I live, in the building where my mother lives,” Tchicaya told me. “I even knew personally some of the young people who were part of the murder gang. To believe that all Jews are rich is an anti-Semitic prejudice that didn’t exist in the neighborhood twenty years ago.” He added, “Dieudonné is cunning, insinuating. He touches parts of people’s minds that are vulnerable.”
In May, 2006, a group calling itself the Tribu Ka marched down the Rue des Rosiers, the main street of the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Le Marais, chanting anti-Semitic slogans. The Tribu Ka’s leader, Kémi Séba, a French-born man of Ivory Coast and Haitian parentage, reportedly issued a “warning” to France’s Jewish community: “If by any chance the French Jews brush even a single hair of Brother Fofana’s head, we will take care of the curls of your rabbi.” In July, Sarkozy, who was then the interior minister, had the Tribu Ka banned. All of this meant further embarrassment for Dieudonné, who, it was revealed, allowed Séba to use the Théâtre de la Main d’Or for meetings in which he reportedly praised Hitler’s ideas on race. Dieudonné’s office issued a statement emphasizing the gulf between Séba and himself, and pointing out that Séba’s “ethnically based organization”—the Tribu Ka excludes non-blacks from its meetings—was the opposite of the “republican project defended by Dieudonné.” (Two months ago, the Théâtre de la Main d’Or announced Séba’s stage début, a “street politic” production called “Sarkophobie.”)
In August, 2006, Dieudonné left town on an “anti-Zionist solidarity mission,” and arrived in Beirut in the wake of Israel’s war with Hezbollah. He was accompanied by his Presidential campaign manager, Marc Robert; the September 11th conspiracy theorist Thierry Meyssan; and Ahmed Moualek, the leader of the youth organization La Banlieue S’Exprime! (The Suburbs Speak!). Dieudonné met with the chief of Hezbollah’s television network, Al Manar, and was photographed shaking hands with Jesse Jackson, who looked befuddled. By his side during all these encounters was his new friend from the National Front, Alain Soral.
I saw Soral again this past May, two weeks after the French Presidential elections. Le Pen had won only ten per cent of the vote—his worst showing in years—and failed to qualify for a second round. Though the victorious Sarkozy campaign managed to win National Front supporters by promising a tough new immigration policy, N.F. insiders blamed the outcome on Soral’s “banlieue” strategy and the alliance with Dieudonné, who, they believed, had alienated white voters as well as moderates. “We have passed into the Republic of Show Business, a schmatte monarchy,” Soral said glumly. “There was almost nobody on the Champs-Élysées for Sarkozy’s victory, but on TV it looked like crowds. It was just like in Baghdad, with the tearing down of Saddam Hussein’s statue. It was all staged television, recycled crowds, Jews. The French people don’t care—they’re like cows watching a train go by.”
On May 10th, a memorial to the victims of France’s slave trade was dedicated in the Luxembourg Gardens. The memorial is a red-and-green metal rendering of the links of a chain, with the words “violence,” “prison,” “liberty,” “rape,” and “independence” running in relief along them. Until the late nineteen-nineties, France had not formally acknowledged its involvement in the slave trade. Yet in the eighteenth century, when sugar fuelled global power and conflict, the French colony of Saint-Domingue, run with extraordinary cruelty, was one of the world’s largest single markets for slaves.
In 2001, the National Assembly declared that the Atlantic slave trade was a “crime against humanity,” and since then the French have been “discovering” their history as a slave empire. (The government began accelerating the process after the banlieue riots in the fall of 2005.) The ceremony dedicating the memorial was Sarkozy’s first as President-elect, and he stood awkwardly, surrounded by France’s leading black activists and sports stars, as the sins of the nation were read out. Dieudonné clasped his hands behind his back as he walked around the monument, which resembled a truncated piece of kids’ climbing equipment. “Pas mal, pas mal,” he said.
He was in a jovial mood. As we walked through the park, he speculated that, with the pro-Israel, center-right Sarkozy in power, demand for his alternative voice would grow. A young man in a dark business suit approached Dieudonné and said, “Sir, I really respect you. I want to say you’re great.” Two high-school students asked him for autographs. Joggers, both white and black, waved enthusiastically as they ran by. After a while, we sat on a park bench. He talked about the evolution of his performance style, and his conviction that comedy can never be too serious. “I understand that my laughter can scare people,” he said, as two boys, one white, the other Asian, approached to ask for autographs. A group of black teen-agers wearing white T-shirts, baseball caps, and gold chains appeared. “We love you, we love you,” chanted the teen-agers, who said they were from Martinique. “You’re too cool, too funny.” We then made our way down the Boulevard Saint-Michel, to a bistro near the Panthéon. Dieudonné asked for a table in the back. He eyed the plates passing from the kitchen, asking the waiters to identify each dish. “We’ll trust you to pick us a good red to drink,” he said to one. He began to tell me about a DVD he was planning to make with the Pygmies.
He said that his family (he has four children with a white French woman with whom he has been living for fourteen years) often visited New York—“Broadway is marvellous!” His conversation veered from Broadway to Big Oil, the World Bank, and why he favored nuclear proliferation in states like North Korea and Iran: “It will bring more peace, not less—balance is always good.”
I asked about the show he was writing for the 2008 season. “It will be called ‘Love and Daisies,’ ” he said. “I can’t tell you details, but I guarantee one thing: there will be Pygmies, real live Pygmies, from the jungles of Cameroon. It’s going to be very light.” Really? “Well, maybe it’s going to get violent,” he replied with a grin. “But love is violent sometimes. We start with love and flowers, and we see where it takes us.”
Dieudonné sometimes speaks as if he were baffled that he could ever give offense—almost as if his words were uttered by someone else. His dream, he said, was to put on a big show in the Middle East—a comedy with the Jews and the Arabs. “Last summer, I met with Muslim comics in these countries,” he told me. “They are hostile to the politics of the Israeli state, of course, but I don’t think they will be hostile to Jewish humor necessarily. And I don’t know Shiite humor—but they must laugh as much in Iran as anywhere.” He went on, “Maybe the Jew would have to play the Palestinian, the Palestinian would play the American, the American would play the Iranian—it could be funny. Enriching. Fun for each side. It’s not the unknown that scares me; it’s the known that makes me scared. I will continue to clown around, whatever happens. 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.” ♦