Should Canada close its doors to controversial French comic?

Friday May 6, 2016, The Globe and Mail

The controversial French comedian Dieudonné is booked to perform 10 shows in a small Montreal gallery starting next week – if he’s allowed into the country. Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre has called him persona non grata. Federal Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly has pointed out that discriminatory speech is not tolerated in Canada.

Why has a comic caused such an uproar? Twenty years ago Dieudonné may have been funny, but in the past decade he has become a racist activist. His main targets are Jews and the Holocaust. He jokes about the Nazi gas chambers and has concocted a variation of a Nazi salute. He has promoted Robert Faurisson, France’s most infamous Holocaust denier. In a Facebook post, he identified with the gunman who killed four Jews in a Paris grocery store. In a video, he mocked the decapitation of American hostage James Foley.

Although France’s commitment to freedom of speech is as old as the republic itself, it is not without limits. Dieudonné has been convicted on many counts of incitement to hatred. His shows have been cancelled in dozens of French locales, in Brussels and previously in Quebec. In the past few months, he has been deported from Thailand and Hong Kong.

Whether or not he will be allowed to perform in Canada, the controversy has opened a window into something deeper in French culture, for Dieudonné’s racism in the guise of humour has a significant following among the marginalized. The substance of his work is the so-called “new anti-Semitism” – a mix of anti-Americanism, anti-globalism, anti-colonialism (Israel), anti-Zionism and pro-Third World ideology.

Elements of these beliefs link both extremes of France’s political spectrum; however, there’s nothing new about them. Behind Dieudonné’s vile humour lies a subtext that is familiar to the French; when he targets perceived injustice, taunts scapegoats and reminds his fans of French colonial abuses, he awakens historical grievances – and in this he has famous predecessors.

Starting in the 1960s, Frantz Fanon’s wildly successful book The Wretched of the Earth exposed the psychological effects of colonialism and radicalized a generation. In the 1980s, Jacques Vergès, the Maoist lawyer for Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, turned his client’s trial into a focused attack on France itself – over its wartime collaboration and crimes committed during the Algerian conflict. (Mr. Vergès also subscribed to the ideology of “the new anti-Semitism,” although it didn’t yet have a name.)

Dieudonné is not in this league. Even the charges against him have mutated into petty criminality, the latest being brandishing a weapon against a bailiff who came to collect court-ordered fines. But is he dangerous? French authorities think so. As extremism grows, they worry that his racist goading will engender more violence.

Should he be barred from Canada? In today’s climate, I doubt that the French-specific new anti-Semitism would find much resonance in Quebec. On the other hand, he seems to be trying to salvage his career. According to his lawyer, the Montreal show (for which tickets are sold out) is titled In Peace. “It’s about plants and ecology,” he said.

Will Dieudonné be barred from Canada? Probably. Our anti-hate laws resemble those of France, and he has many justified criminal convictions. When he presents himself at customs next week, the border agents will make a decision about his eligibility. If I were Dieudonné, I’d get a refund on my plane ticket now.

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