The comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, according to French authorities, is under investigation for inciting racial hatred. They have also urged city officials to consider barring Dieudonné from public performances during his upcoming tour.
Prodding the government to act was the video clip of Dieudonné’s current show in Paris, when he mentions the name of Patrick Cohen, a journalist (and antagonist) who happens to be Jewish. Smiling, Dieudonné sighs: “When I hear Patrick Cohen talk, I say to myself… the gas chambers… what a pity.”
Rarely has the meaning of “mourir de rire” — to die laughing — taken on so dark a hue.
Whether God gave us this comedian, as his name suggests, is a question best left to theologians. But leave it to historians to discuss how France’s past has given this man to us. The comic’s career reflects not just the nature of political discourse in France, but also reveals the practical and ethical puzzles that its political parties face as they attempt to respond to it.
The child of a mixed marriage — his mother is French, while his father is from Cameroon — Dieudonné first won celebrity two decades ago as part of a comedy duo. Partnering with his childhood friend Élie Semoun, the child of a Moroccan-Jewish family, the two men — a large man with a cherubic face side by side with a slight fellow with angular features — lampooned the everyday racism that blacks and Arabs confronted in France. The duo was a smash hit, but their partnership would soon founder. (Semoun no longer recognizes his former friend, living as he does in a “world of hate.”)
From the theater, Dieudonné drifted to the political stage. Determined to oppose a candidate from the racist and anti-Semitic Front National, he ran for office in the city of Dreux in 1997, but received less than 8% of the vote. Clearly, winning applause was one thing, quite another was winning votes.
Yet Dieudonné persisted: in 2002 he ran an even more disastrous legislative campaign in a Paris suburb against the Socialist candidate — none other than Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the man who would have his own tragi-comic turn at a New York hotel a decade later.