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Dieudonné: freedom of expression is no joke in France

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Dieudonné: freedom of expression is no joke in France


French comic Dieudonne is expected in court on Wednesday to answer to charges of ‘apology for terrorism’ after appearing to praise the suspect who killed four people in a kosher supermarket in Paris, Amédy Coulibaly by writing “Je me sens Charlie Coulibaly” (I feel like Charlie Coulibaly) on his Facebook page.

It came on the same day as millions of people stood behind the motto “JeSuisCharlie” at rallies across France following the deadly Charlie Hebdo attack. The message generated a wave of angry responses online and was referred to the police.

Dieudonné is well known in France and is a particularly divisive figure. He already stirred controversy last year over his signature gesture, the “Quenelle”, a modified Nazi-style salute. His comedy tour was cancelled last year as a threat to public order. He also has a long history of heading to court for judgements on various anti-semitic statements.

The latest incident has opened up debate about freedom of expression and where to draw the line. In the wake of the attacks, the defence of free speech took on a quasi-religious status and yet it is well defined in French law. Supporters of Dieudonné have claimed France has double standards when it comes to freedom of expression. The cartoonists of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo have lampooned various religious and political figures over the years, but have never been charged. Muslim organisations did attempt to take the magazine to court over the reprinting of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in 2007 but the court ruled it did not constitute inciting racial hatred. To understand why Dieudonné has fallen foul of French law on freedom of expression we take a look at the comic’s previous cases and how the law defines and limits speech.

Who is Dieudonné?

Dieudonné M’bala M’bala is a French comedian, actor and firebrand political figure. He was born on February 11, 1966 in Fontenay-aux-Rose to a French mother and Cameroonian father. He studied at a Catholic school in a middle-class suburb of Paris.

After leaving school and taking a series of jobs, he directed his energies towards comedy. In the 1990s he teamed up with Elie Semoun to form the duo “Elie et Dieudonné”. He also became involved in politics, taking a particular dislike to then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and all forms of racism.

It was around this time that he decided to write a film about the history of the slave trade, a subject which he became increasingly passionate about as he began to flirt with radical black groups. After applying for funding from the National Cinema Centre (CNC) and being refused, he accused the “Zionists of the CNC” of practising double standards for favouring holocaust stories to those of black slavery. This set off a string of public appearances where he attacked Jews which was matched by almost as many lawsuits.

Previous trials
  • 16 February 2005
  • During a press conference in Algeria, he referred to the Holocaust as “remembrance porn”. Following the subsequent uproar he clarified that he was talking about the commemorations and not the Holocaust itself. He was convicted.
  • 16 February 2007
  • In an interview with Lyon Capitale on 23 January 2002 as part of his presidential campaign, Dieudonné compared Jews to a “sect”. He claimed his words were part of a theoretical debate about religion rather than an attack on the Jewish community. But the court found that he had targeted a group of people based on their background.
  • 28 November 2013
  • He was convicted and fined 28,000 euros on appeal for inciting racial hatred in in the “Shoahnanas affair” over words to a song he posted online. The song could translate as “Holocaust pineapples”. He defended it saying it could mean “chaud ananas” or “hot pineapples” which sounded similar.

Charges are still being considered over anti-semitic statements and inciting racial hatred against journalist Patrick Cohen, after Dieudonné reportedly said: “When I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I say to myself, you know, gas chambers. What a shame.” The verdict is due on March 19.

Freedom of Expression – the French law

Liberty is the first part of France’s guiding motto, but it comes with conditions.

Article 11 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 states:

“The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.”

But the law stipulates that in reality the exercise of this freedom comes with responsibilities subjected to certain “formalities, conditions, restrictions or sanctions” provided by the law.

The Freedom of the Press law 1881, which is the founding document for free speech, notes the responsibility for publishers regarding “defamatory or insulting (comments), that would encourage discrimination, hatred or violence against a person or group of persons because of their place of origin, ethnicity or absence of ethnicity, nationality, race or specific religion”.

This was changed in November 2014 to include “apology for terrorism”, which carries a sentence of up to seven years.

The principals limiting freedom of expression fall into two categories.

  • Defamation and injury
  • Words inciting hatred which include apology for crimes against humanity, anti-semitism, racism and homophobia.

In short, freedom of expression doesn’t permit calls to kill, the justification of war crimes, crimes against humanity or inciting hatred or violence against gender groups, people with disabilities or people of different sexual orientation.

The jester and the court

Humour falls into its own category. There is freedom of expression but not for racism which is a crime. Satire and caricature can be used within certain limits. This means it should not target one specific group gratuitously and repetitively. France is a secular state and the law does not forbid mockery of religion but it also does not recognise blasphemy. However, it does forbid inciting hatred against followers of a certain religion.

In this respect, Dieudonné has overstepped the mark by targeting a specific group, whereas Charlie Hebdo was cleared of insulting former French President Nicolas Sarkozy while he was in office or the National Front’s xenophobia.

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