Dieudonné M'Bala M'Bala, the 48-year-old incendiary French comedian best known as Dieudonné, was back in court Wednesday in Paris, this time for a questionable remark he posted on Facebook. The polemic comic is charged with condoning terrorism in the wake of January attacks in Paris that killed 17, including journalists of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, three police officers, and four Jewish hostages at a kosher grocery.
Just four days after the Jan. 7 attack on Charlie Hebdo, record-breaking millions marched in Paris and throughout France in the spirit of “Je suis Charlie,” I am Charlie, in the name of freedom of expression and in homage to the dead. That very night, Dieudonné took to Facebook to declare, “Know that tonight, as far as I’m concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.” Recall that Amédy Coulibaly, working in league with the Charlie Hebdo killers and claiming allegiance to Islamic State, shot dead a policewoman on Jan. 8, and killed four Jewish hostages in a kosher supermarket on Jan. 9.
The comic-provocateur—notorious for his so-called “quenelle” arm gesture he deems anti-establishment but that critics liken to a Nazi salute—could face a stiff penalty if convicted. Condoning terrorism is punishable in France by up to five years in jail and a 75,000-euro fine, but doing so online can bump that up to seven years and 100,000 euros. The public prosecutor’s office asked Wednesday that Dieudonné be punished with a 30,000-euro fine, convertible to 200 days in jail should he fail to pay. A verdict is expected March 18.
So is Dieudonné’s prosecution an ironic negation of free speech after massive Charlie Hebdo unity? Or is enough simply enough for a serial offender?
Outside the courtroom Wednesday, Dieudonné fans gathered to cheer their hero on. And some of his supporters were quick to flag the irony.
Sofiane, 29, told The Daily Beast, “It’s bizarre because we demonstrated on Jan. 11 with everyone in the street to support freedom of expression and a few hours later, we learned that, actually, we couldn’t express ourselves fully.” He says passing judgment on a personal feeling strays into fascism. “We fight for [free speech] and actually the prime minister who told us to go demonstrate—me, I go into the street with my little placard and everything, ‘Freedom of expression,’ but in the end, hup!, I get tackled. And I’m told, ‘No, no, in fact, freedom of expression is when the government decides.’ So I’m in favor of total freedom of expression.”
“And, above all, not two-track,” his friend Abdel Chaarir, 27, chimes in.
“In France, you can buy a book called Mein Kampf,” Sofiane explains. “What I don’t understand is why Hitler isn’t censored, but they can censor an artist, a comedian.” And how does Sofiane feel when Dieudonné is called an anti-Semite? “No, it’s not possible. He’s not an anti-Semite,” he says flatly.
In his Facebook message, Dieudonné, too, said he had marched on Jan. 11 and added sarcastically that it was “a magical moment equivalent to the Big Bang that created the universe.” The message was deleted three days later. After he was charged with condoning terrorism in January, Dieudonné’s lawyer, Sanjay Mirabeau, argued that his client associated Charlie and Coulibaly because he is made to feel like terrorist. Dieudonné repeated the sentiment in court Wednesday.
“Of course, I condemn without the slightest restraint or ambiguity the attacks,” the comic told the court, according to remarks cited by Reuters inside the courtroom. “I felt a lot of emotion that day… I feel like Charlie of course… And then at the same time I feel I am treated like a terrorist.”
At the moment in France, Dieudonné may not be the only one who feels this way. France’s aggressive pursuit of certain types of speech in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks—alongside the massive outpouring in support for free speech during the same time—has raised eyebrows. A judges’ union, a lawyers’ union, and Amnesty International quickly raised the alarm.
In January, Prime Minister Manuel Valls told Agence France-Presse, “We must lead a debate everywhere in our society, in our neighborhoods, to explain that there is a difference between freedom of expression and criminal offenses: racism, anti-Semitism, condoning terrorism, negationism. These aren’t opinions, they are offenses punishable by law, and even more severely because we want to toughen legislation in this domain.”
Official figures cited by AFP show 257 cases brought for condoning terrorism or inciting hatred or violence for reasons of race or religion between the attack Jan. 7 and Jan. 29. Of those, 161 cases weren’t linked to other circumstances, like drug or alcohol offenses, and 41 of those were fast-tracked to “immediate appearances” in court; 18 suspects had already been sentenced to jail time.
Last week, malaise over the tough stance on selected speech reached a fever pitch when it was revealed an 8-year-old boy had been questioned at a police station in Nice. The child, known as Ahmed, had refused to participate in his 3rd-grade class’s moment of silence for the Charlie Hebdo victims, an homage held nationwide on Jan. 8. The boy reportedly said he sided with the terrorists because the victims had insulted his Prophet.
But Dieudonné critics would point out that this latest charge isn’t exactly the comic’s first time on the playground. The controversial comedian appears to rate his own category: the serial offender with a pulpit (and, yes, lots of fans).
“He knows perfectly well how to play with the words, it’s his trade,” the public prosecutor’s representative said in court Wednesday. “He weighs each of his words; he knows precisely that he will be borderline,” she said, in remarks quoted by AFP inside the courtroom, adding that Dieudonné’s explanations are “always voluntarily provocative and always falsely ambiguous.”
The comic has already been convicted nine times, most often for offenses targeting Jews—anti-Semitic speech, racist insults or inciting racial hatred. (Indeed, on Jan. 16, Dieudonné was prosecuted after launching an Internet campaign for donations to pay off his previous fines.)
The Charlie Coulibaly case is at least the third allegation against him for condoning terrorism, although he has yet to be convicted on that charge. He was acquitted on the charge in 2004 after saying, in the months following the Sept. 11 attacks, that, “I prefer Bin Laden’s charisma to that of George Bush.” Last fall, French authorities opened an investigation into remarks he made about ISIS’s decapitation of American journalist James Foley.
Dieudonné is no stranger to the Paris courthouse’s docket. In the last three weeks alone, he has been named in five other cases on the agenda here. Only 24 hours before Wednesday’s appearance, he was on the hook for insults stemming from an August 2013 video in which he called Prime Minister Valls, who was then Interior Minister, “Mussolini halfway suffering from Down’s Syndrome” and “a spineless and docile little Israeli soldier.” Valls has asked for a symbolic euro in damages, while the Public Prosecutor’s office has called for a 4,000-euro fine; Dieudonné’s lawyer, meanwhile, wants 15,000 euros in damages for abuse of process. A verdict is expected March 24.
And just a week ago, Dieudonné was prosecuted here for inciting racial hatred. In 2013, footage from one of his comedy shows depicted him saying of a French radio journalist, “When I hear him speak, Patrick Cohen, I say to myself, you see, the gas chambers… too bad…” At the time, the comments sparked outrage at the highest echelons. Valls obtained bans on Dieudonné’s performances in France. During last week’s trial, the Public Prosecutor’s office requested another 30,000-euro fine (convertible into 300 days in jail if Dieudonné doesn’t pay up). There, too, a decision is pending, on March 19.
Just a few more dates on Dieudonné’s court calendar, which is so packed it’s starting to look like its own Facebook feed.