In grim and supreme irony, French police have fanned out to suppress free speech in order to defend it.
“France ordered prosecutors around the country to crack down on hate speech, anti-Semitism and glorifying terrorism, announcing Wednesday that 54 people had been arrested for those offenses” since last week, the Associated Press reports.
The news of the arrests comes a week after the murders of 17 people at and near the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo and at a Jewish supermarket in Paris.
It also comes days after dozens of world leaders, led by French President François Hollande, gathered in Paris to demonstrate in support of free speech and in defiance of the killers who sought to silence it.
The most high-profile arrest is undoubtedly that of the comedian Dieudonné, allegedly on grounds of “justifying terrorism,” for a comment he made on Facebook.
I do not find Dieudonné funny and I find much of what he says offensive. In my reading, he and his supporters deliberately blur a line that must be kept sharp between criticizing Zionism and Israel, on the one hand, and attacking Jews as Jews on the other.
This is something I have always spoken against clearly and therefore I do not see Dieudonné as someone in solidarity with Palestinians.
I also do not find Dieudonné’s defense that his bigotry is just “humor” any more convincing from him than when it comes from Charlie Hebdo.
But I do not think that the Facebook comment for which Dieudonné was reportedly arrested can by any stretch be described as “justifying terrorism.” Nor do I think that if the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who were murdered were held to the same standards that much of their work would be considered any less offensive or racist than Dieudonné’s.
And of course the implications go far beyond the personal situation of Dieudonné.
The French daily Le Figaro reports that Dieudonné was arrested by judicial police at his home near Paris for investigation of “apologie de terrorisme” – justifying or making an apologia for terrorism.
Le Figaro published this screenshot of a posting on Dieudonné’s Facebook page that apparently precipitated the arrest. It is dated 11 January, the day of the Paris march.
After this historic march, what do I say… Legendary! A magic moment equal to the Big Bang that created the universe … or at least (more local) comparable to the crowning of [Gaulish king] Vercingétorix, I’m finally back home. Know that this evening, as far as I am concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.
Amedy Coulibaly was the gunman who killed a police officer and then took hostages and killed four people at a Jewish grocery store.
Who’s a “Charlie”?
By creating the term “Charlie Coulibaly,” Dieudonné is obviously mocking the slogan “Je suis Charlie” heard all over the world in recent days. His words might be objectionable, but are they grounds for arrest for justifying terrorism?
Dieudonné’s meaning becomes clear in a letter he sent to French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve the day after the march.
It begins: “Yesterday we were all Charlie, marching and standing tall for liberties. So that we can all continue to laugh at everything.”
“After coming home from this march I felt quite alone,” Dieudonné writes.
“For a year I have been treated as public enemy number one, even though all I’ve done is try to make people laugh, and to die of laughter, since death is laughing at us, as Charlie knows all too well alas,” Dieudonné states.
He then refers to a “peace” proposal he sent to the government weeks ago to which, he says, he has received no response. And then he says:
“As soon as I speak, you do not try to understand me, you do not want to listen. You look for pretexts to ban me. You consider me to be an Amedy Coulibaly, even though I am no different from Charlie.”
Again, I don’t buy Dieudonné’s line that much of his racist bile is misunderstood satire and humor, but the valid point he is making is that his speech is treated as violence and terrorism and he is treated like a terrorist, while those whose speech is just as disgusting were and are treated like heroes of the republic.
Dieudonné’s arrest this morning ironically vindicates his claim that he is a “Coulibaly” in the eyes of the state.
French “war on terror”
Launching the French government’s newly declared (or re-declared) “war on terrorism,” and its crackdown on dissent, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that “racism, anti-Semitism and justifying terrorism” were “not opinions.”
The arrest of Dieudonné shows that the government will decide what constitutes an “opinion.”
We can be sure that many others whose opinions the state does not like will also be treated as “Coulibaly.” And where France goes, Europe will follow.
France, Germany and other European countries already have “hate speech laws” and it has been much remarked upon how unevenly they are applied.
Why, for example, has a Germany so concerned about “extremism,” and whose leader Angela Merkel marched in Paris, not banned the growing anti-Muslim marches in its own cities?
Europe’s politicians and elites (along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) joined hands to celebrate the vile bigotry of Charlie Hebdo, while Dieudonné was taken away in a morning police raid.
Capitalizing on division, pandering to bigotry and fear
If the French state is looking for a way to increase the influence of and sympathy with Dieudonné, it could not have come up with a better strategy.
Meanwhile, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been tweeting comments in the wake of the attacks that can only be taken as a dog whistle to the bigots and ultra-nationalists he hopes will put him back in office at the next election: “The questions of immigration and Islam have been clearly posed. They must be asked calmy, involving everyone.”
Could anyone imagine Sarkozy, or any politician, demanding “expulsion” of French Jewish or French Christian clerics if they espouse views that are antithetical to the republic like believing that Israel should be “Jewish” or that France should be “Muslim-free?”
Sarkozy’s clear implication – although he doesn’t say it – is that every Muslim cleric is always already foreign and has some other place outside France to which they more properly belong.
The government’s crackdown appears to be an effort to pander to this authoritarian sentiment and head off Sarkozy’s challenge.
Crackdown on Palestine solidarity
What will happen next? The French state will solidify its alliance with those who claim that criticism of Israel and solidarity with Palestinians is “anti-Semitism” and therefore “not an opinion.”
It was already on such bogus grounds that France banned rallies during the summer protesting Israel’s massacre in Gaza. And for years, France has been prosecuting activists in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
There will be many more people who are treated as Coulibalys instead of Charlies for what they say.
It now remains to be seen if those who adopted the slogan “Je suis Charlie” and insisted on republishing Charlie Hebdo’s racially denigrating and satirically worthless cartoons will rush to declare “Je suis Dieudonné” and repost his most vile and objectionable material.
Background on Dieudonné
French courts have banned Dieudonné from performing because the comedian “frequently sprinkles his act with diatribes against Holocaust remembrance,” as The New York Times’ Robert Mackey reported last year.
He has also been put on trial and fined dozens of times for things he has said.
Dieudonné “invented an obscene salute popular with anti-Semites” known as the “quenelle.” As Mackey reported, the comedian “insists” that the quenelle “was not inspired by the Nazis, but is a gesture of obscene disdain for the French establishment.”
However, Mackey adds, “anti-Semites who read his anti-Zionist rhetoric as a kind of code to skirt French laws against inciting racial hatred now frequently do it at Holocaust memorials and other Jewish sites.”