Blasphemy in Secular France
The campaign by the French government, mass media and influential organizations to silence the Franco-Cameroonese humorist Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala continues to expose a radical split in perception within the French population. The official “mobilization” against the standup comedian, first called for by Interior Minister Manuel Valls at a ruling Socialist Party gathering last summer, portrays the entertainer as a dangerous anti-Semitic rabble rouser, whose “quenelle”* gesture is interpreted as a “Nazi salute in reverse”.
For his fans and supporters, those accusations are false and absurd.
The most significant result of the Dieudonné uproar so far is probably the dawning realization, among more and more people, that the “Shoah”, or Holocaust, functions as the semi-official State Religion of France.
On RTL television last January 10, the well-known nonconformist commentator Eric Zemmour (who happens to be Jewish) observed that it was “grotesque and ridiculous” to associate Dieudonné with the Third Reich. Zemmour described Dieudonné as a product of the French left’s multiculturalism. “It’s the left that has taught us since May ’68 that it is prohibited to prohibit, that we must shock the bourgeois. It is the left that has turned the Shoah into the supreme religion of the Republic…”
Zemmour suggested that Dieudonné was provoking “the respectable left-wing bourgeoisie” and that he “reproaches Jews for wanting to conserve the monopoly of suffering and steal primacy in suffering from descendants of slavery”.
There is more than that at stake. Reminders of the Shoah serve indirectly to justify France’s increasingly pro-Israel foreign policy in the Middle East. Dieudonné opposed the war against Libya enough to go there to show his solidarity with the country being bombed by NATO.
Dieudonné began his career as a militant anti-racist. Instead of apologizing for his 2003 sketch mocking an “extreme Zionist settler”, Dieudonné retorted by gradually extending his sphere of humor to cover the Shoah. The campaign against him can be seen as an effort to restore the sacred character of the Shoah by enforcing repression of a contemporary form of blasphemy.
To confirm this impression, on January 9 an “historic” agreement was reached between the Paris Prosecutor’s Office and the French Shoah Memorial that any teenager found guilty of anti-Semitism may be sentenced to undergo a course of “sensitivity to the extermination of the Jews”. Studying genocide is supposed to teach them “republican values of tolerance and respect for others”.
This is perhaps exactly what they don’t need. The Prosecutor’s Office may be unaware of all the young people who are saying that they have had too much, rather than not enough, Shoah education.
An atypical article in Le Monde of January 8 cited opinions anyone can easily hear from French youth, but which are usually ignored. After interviewing ten left-leaning, middle class spectators who denied any anti-Semitism, Soren Seelow quoted Nico, a 22-year-old left-voting law student at the Sorbonne, who adores Dieudonné for “liberating” laughter in what he considers a stuffy conformist society of “good thoughts”. As for the Shoah, Nico complained that “they’ve been telling us about it since elementary school. When I was 12, I saw a film with bulldozers pushing bodies into ditches. We are subjected to a guilt-inducing morality from the earliest age.”
In addition to history courses, teachers organize commemorations of the Shoah and trips to Auschwitz. Media reminders of the Shoah are almost daily. Unique in French history, the so-called Gayssot law provides that any statement denying or minimizing the Shoah can be prosecuted and even lead to prison.
Scores of messages received from French citizens in response to my earlier article (CounterPunch, January 1, 2014) as well as private conversations make it clear to me that reminders of the Shoah are widely experienced by people born decades after the defeat of Nazism as invitations to feel guilty or at least uncomfortable for crimes they did not commit. Like many demands for solemnity, the Shoah can be felt as a subject that imposes uneasy silence. Laughter is then felt as liberation.
But for others, such laughter can only be an abomination.
Dieudonné has been fined 8,000 euros for his song “Shoananas”, and further such condemnations are in the offing. Such lawsuits, brought primarily by LICRA (Ligue internationale contre le racisme et l’antisémitisme), also aim to wipe him out financially.
One line in the chorus against Dieudonné is that he is “no longer a comedian” but has turned his shows into “anti-Semitic political meetings” which spread “hatred”. Even the distant New Yorker magazine has accused the humorist of making a career out of peddling “hatred”. This raises images of terrible things happening that are totally remote from a Dieudonné show or its consequences.
There was no atmosphere of hatred among the thousands of fans left holding their tickets when Dieudonné’s January 9 show in Nantes was banned at the last minute by France’s highest administrative authority, the Conseil d’Etat. Nobody was complaining of being deprived of a “Nazi rally”. Nobody thought of causing harm to anyone. All said they had come to enjoy the show. They represented a normal cross-section of French youth, largely well-educated middle class. The show was banned on the grounds of “immaterial disturbance of public order”. The disappointed crowd dispersed peacefully. Dieudonné’s shows have never led to any public disorder.
But there is no mistaking the virulent hatred against Dieudonné.
Philippe Tesson, a prominent editor, announced during a recent radio interview that he would “profoundly rejoice” at seeing Dieudonné executed by a firing squad. “He is a filthy beast, so get rid of him!” he exclaimed.
The internet Rabbi Rav Haim Dynovisz, in the course of a theology lesson, acknowledged that Darwin’s theory of evolution, which he rejects, had been proved by Dieudonné to apply to “certain” people, who must have descended from gorillas.
Two 17-year-olds have been permanently expelled from their high school for having made the quenelle gesture, on grounds of “crimes against humanity”. The Franco-Israeli web magazine JSSNews is busily investigating the identities of persons making the quenelle sign in order to try to get them fired from their jobs, boasting that it will “add to unemployment in France”.
The owners of the small Paris theater, “La Main d’Or”, rented by Dieudonné on a lease running until 2019, recently rushed back from Israel expressing their intention to use a technicality to end his lease and throw him out.
The worst thing Dieudonné has ever said during his performances, so far as I am aware, was a personal insult against the radio announcer Patrick Cohen. Cohen has insistently urged that persons he calls “sick brains” such as Dieudonné or Tariq Ramadan be banned from television appearances. In late December, French television (which otherwise has kept Dieudonné off the airwaves) recorded Dieudonné saying that “when I hear Patrick Cohen talking, I think to myself, you know, the gas chambers…Too bad…”
With the anti-Dieudonné campaign already well underway, this offensive comment was seized upon as if it were typical of Dieudonné’s shows. It was an excessively crude reaction by Dieudonné to virulent personal attacks against himself.
Irreverence is a staple for standup comics, like it or not. And Dieudonné’s references to the Holocaust, or Shoah, all fall into the category of irreverence.
On matters other than the Shoah, there is no shortage of irreverence in France.
Traditional religions, as well as prominent individuals, are regularly caricatured in a manner so scatological as to make the quenelle look prudish. In October, 2011, Paris police intervened against traditional Catholics who sought to interrupt a play which included (the apparent) pouring of excrement over the face of Jesus. The political-media establishment vigorous defended the play, unconcerned that it was perceived by some people as “offensive”.
Recently, France gave a big welcome to the Ukrainian group calling itself “Femen”, young women who seem to have studied Gene Sharp’s doctrines of provocation, and use their bare breasts as (ambiguous) statements. These women were rapidly granted residence papers (so hard to get for many immigrant workers) and allowed to set up shop in the midst of the main Muslim neighborhood in Paris, where they immediately attempted to try (unsuccessfully) to provoke the incredulous residents. The blonde Femen leader was even chosen to portray the symbol of the Republic, Marianne, on the current French postage stamp, although she does not speak French.
Last December 20, these “new feminists” invaded the Church of the Madeleine near the Elysée Palace in Paris, acted out “the abortion of Jesus” and then pissed on the high altar. There were no cries of indignation from the French government. The Catholic Church is complaining, but such complaints have a feeble echo in France today.
Why the Shoah Must Be Sacred
When Dieudonné sings lightly of the Shoah, he is believed by some to be denying the Holocaust and calling for its repetition (a contradictory proposition, upon reflection). The sacred nature of the Shoah is defended by the argument that keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust is essential to prevent it from “happening again”. By suggesting the possibility of repetition, it keeps fear alive.
This argument is generally accepted as a sort of law of nature. We must keep commemorating genocide to prevent it from happening again. But is there really any evidence to support this argument?
Nothing proves that repeated reminders of an immense historic event that happened in the past prevent it from happening again. History doesn’t work that way. As for the Shoah, gas chambers and all, it is quite preposterous to imagine that it could happen again considering all the factors that made it happen in the first place. Hitler had a project to confirm the role of Germans as the master “Aryan” race in Europe, and hated the Jews as a dangerous rival elite. Who now has such a project? Certainly not a Franco-African humorist! Hitler is not coming back, nor is Napoleon Bonaparte, nor is Attila the Hun.
Constantly recalling the Shoah, in articles, movies, news items, as well as at school, far from preventing anything, can create a morbid fascination with “identities”. It fosters “victim rivalries”. This fascination can lead to unanticipated results. Some 330 schools in Paris bear plaques commemorating the Jewish children who were deported to Nazi concentration camps. How do little Jewish children today react to that? Do they find it reassuring?
This may be useful to the State of Israel, which is currently undertaking a three-year program to encourage more of France’s 600,000 Jews to leave France and go to Israel. In 2013, the number of Aliyah from France rose to more than 3,000, a trend attributed by the European Jewish Press to the “French Jewish community’s increasingly Zionistic mentality, particularly among young French Jews, and a manifestation of efforts by the Jewish Agency, the Israel government, and other non-profits to cultivate Jewish identity in France.”
“If this year we have seen Aliyah from France go from under 2,000 to more than 3,000, I look forward to seeing that number grow to 6,000 and beyond in the near future, as we connect ever more young people to Jewish life and to Israel,” declared Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Surely, one way to encourage Aliyah is to scare Jews with the threat of anti-Semitism, and claiming that Dieudonné’s numerous fans are Nazis in disguise is a good way to do this.
But as for Jews who want to live in France, is it really healthy to keep reminding Jewish children that, if they are not wary, their fellow citizens might one day want to hoard them onto freight trains and ship them all to Auschwitz? I have heard people saying privately that this permanent reminder is close to child abuse.
Someone who thinks that way is Jonathan Moadab, a 25-year-old independent journalist who was interviewed by Soren Seelow. Moadab is both anti-Zionist and a practicing Jew. As a child he was taken to tour Auschwitz. He told Seelow that that living with that “victim indoctrination” had engendered a sort of “pre-traumatic stress syndrome”.
“Dieudonné’s jokes about the Shoah, like his song Shoananas, are not aimed at the Shoah itself,” he says, “but at the exploitation of the Holocaust described by the American political writer Norman Finkelstein.”
On January 22, on his web site Agence Info Libre, Jonathan Moadab openly called for “separating the State from the Holocaust religion”. Moadab cites professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz as the first to point out the many ways in which the Holocaust has become the new Jewish religion. If that is so, everyone has the right to practice the religion of the Shoah. But should it be the official religion of France?
French politicians never cease celebrating the “laicité”, the secularism, of the French Republic. Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who proclaims his own devotion to Israel, because his wife is Jewish, recently called the Shoah the “sanctuary that cannot be profaned”. Moadab concludes that if the Shoah is a sanctuary, then the Holocaust is a religion, and the Republic is not secular.
Changes are taking place in the attitude of young people in France. This change is not due to Dieudonné. It is due to the passage of time. The Holocaust became the religion of the West at a time when the generation after World War II was in the mood to blame their parents. Now we are with the grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, of those who lived through that period, and they want to look ahead. No law can stop this.
*As described in my earlier article, the “quenelle” is a vulgar gesture roughly meaning “up yours”, with one hand placed at the top of the other arm stretched down to signify “how far up” this is to be. Using the name of a French dumpling, Dieudonné started using this gesture in a wholly different context years ago, as an expression of defiance, incredulity or indifference.
Diana Johnstone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org