“Je me sens Charlie Coulibaly.” Translation: “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.” Infamous French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala wrote these words in a puzzling Facebook post published (and since deleted) in the wake of massacres at the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in the Parisian suburbs. (Amédy Coulibaly being the gunman who prosecutors say killed four hostages held in the market.)
It was offensive as it was unfunny and bizarre. Such is Dieudonné’s comedic MO. A one-time liberal, the French comic is now known for his vocal anti-Semitism, which he dresses up in a political costume of disestablishmentarianism and human-rights advocacy. Perhaps you remember him from last year’s media flurry surrounding la quenelle, a kind of reverse Nazi salute moronically adopted by a few smugly undereducated teens and footballers.
In fact, the funniest thing about Dieudonné is the swirling mass of contradictions he embodies. He is arguably most popular in the Parisian banlieues, suburban ghettos largely populated by African and Middle Eastern communities — “places where anti-Semitism is fed by secondhand Palestinian politics, Islamism, and alienation from French society,” as Tom Reiss wrote in a 2007 profile of the comic. And yet, he frequently pals around with members of the notorious Le Pen family, dynastic leaders of the National Front, a far-right French political party cemented to a platform of xenophobic (read: Islamophobic, anti-Arab) politics.
Nevertheless, this one of many weird, sophomoric social-media missives landed Dieudonné in hot water on Monday. French officials have opened an investigation, and placed the comic under arrest on charges of of “defending terrorism.” It was a move that perplexed The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, who wrote in an essay published Wednesday, “Expressing [his] opinion is evidently a crime in the Republic of Liberté, which prides itself on a line of 20th century intellectuals — from Sartre and Genet to Foucault and Derrida — whose hallmark was leaving no orthodoxy or convention unmolested, no matter how sacred.”
Arresting Dieudonné, who has previously faced criminal prosecution for his provocative views, and has been correspondingly banned from entering the United Kingdom, demonstrates “the sham of the West’s ‘free speech’ celebration,” Greenwald wrote. And this is precisely what people like Dieudonné want.
Though the comic was probably surprised such a listless remark would put him back in the courtroom, he is undoubtedly overjoyed that it has. Dieudonné has built his career on exploiting the disenfranchisement of France’s immigrant communities, converting their (often righteous) anger and alienation into irrational anti-Semitism. Putting him under arrest for expressing his anti-Semitic views only lends credence to this carefully cultivated image of the banlieue folk-hero courageously nipping at the heels of a “worldwide Zionist establishment.” Arresting Dieudonné gives him an excuse to engage full political-martyr mode. It feeds his insatiable ego, as evidenced by the deplorable birth of #JeSuisDieudonné. It sets him up as a genuine, and perhaps sympathetic, political agitator.
Placing Dieudonné behind bars, even for a short period of time, legitimizes him as someone whose politics might, to some, be worthy of acknowledgement. When, in reality, they are little more than the ill-contrived ravings of another attention-seeking, Holocaust-denying, conspiracy-theorist wackjob — a geopolitical fantasist who probably thinks the world is run by lizard-people disguised as Rothschilds. That, or more likely, a monstrous cynic exploiting Muslim-Jewish animosity to bolster his own notoriety. After all, Dieudonné got his start as a performer on stage. It’s only a small stretch to say he probably never left it.
The political theater of people like Dieudonné is inherently beside the point. Greenwald is right, at the core of the controversy is the hypocritical stance of Western governments on free speech: “it’s free speech if it involves ideas I like or attacks groups I dislike, but it’s something different when I’m the one who is offended.” And the system such ideological codifications create is one where people like Dieudonné thrive. There is no place for Dieudonné in a society that allows puerile anti-whateverisms to fizzle into nothingness. And he knows this.
So perhaps, let’s shift the paradigm. Let’s altogether do away with the dichotomy of actively protecting versus selectively condemning hate speech. Let each instance of shallow, self-serving stagecraft flame out, as they inevitably do. Chances are dolts like Dieudonné will be too wrapped up in such fallacies to not disappear along with them. These fame-seekers are not built for longevity.