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Days after free-speech rally, France arrests a comedian for this Facebook post

Dieudonné M'bala M'bala performs the quenelle, a gesture he popularized referencing the Nazi salute.
Dieudonné M'bala M'bala performs the quenelle, a gesture he popularized referencing the Nazi salute.
Patrick Kovarick/AFP/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

After the Charlie Hebdo killings, people around the world united in the name of free speech. But now, according to a Wednesday report in The Guardian,  French authorities arrested virulently anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala for a Facebook post — one that appears to sympathize with the Charlie Hebdo attackers.

Dieudonné has a long history of provocation — he's been arrested at least 38 times for violating French hate-speech laws. His routines are replete with anti-Semitic jokes and songs. He claims that Jewish "slave drivers" secretly run France and has said that "the big crooks of the planet are all Jews." So this Facebook post allegedly sympathizing with the Charlie Hebdo attackers is pretty par for the course. Here's the full text of the now-deleted Facebook post that prompted his most recent arrest, translated by the non-profit Index on Censorship:

After this historic march what do I say...Legendary. Instant magic equal to the Big Bang that created the universe. To a lesser extent (more local) comparable to the coronation of Vercingétorix, I finally returned home. You know that tonight as far as I'm concerned I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.

Most of the post appears to be supportive of the free-speech march in Paris that happened on Sunday. But one line — "I feel like Charlie Coulibaly" — is different. Dieudonné is mashing up Charlie Hebdo with Amedy Coulibaly, the man whose attack on a Kosher supermarket on January 9 was coordinated with the assault on Charlie Hebdo. Dieudonné appears to be saying that he sympathizes both with free-speech advocates and a killer who targeted Jews. Under Article 421-2-5 of the French Criminal code, condoning terrorism is a crime — one punishable by up to a €100,000 fine and seven years imprisonment.

As repellent as Dieudonné clearly is, his arrest seems like rank hypocrisy. How can the French government mouth stirring words about free speech at the same time that it's arresting someone for a kind of oblique Facebook post?

From a certain French point of view, this is too simple. The French legal tradition doesn't protect unrestricted free speech in the way that its American cousin does. Per the New York Times, speech that defames the humanity of a group or community can be restricted in France, as can speech that represents a threat to public order. Holocaust denial is banned.

Charlie Hebdo was attempting to mock religion, hatred, and racism (though the cartoons may unintentionally have reinforced prejudice directed at French Muslims). Dieudonné, by contrast, promotes hate. The French view of free speech sees those two things very differently.

You can agree or disagree with this approach to hate speech (I'm inclined towards the American view, myself). But in some ways, Dieudonné speaks to its limits on its own terms. The comedian employs subtle jokes and allusions — many of them specific cultural references — that manage to get his point across without directly running afoul of French speech laws. So far, none of the charges against him have really stuck.

Take the quenelle, perhaps the most famous Dieudonné invention. It's a salute that not-so-subtly references the Nazi salute; it's become quite a popular gesture among Dieudonné's disaffected anti-establishment fan base. The comedian, for his part, claims it's merely a symbol of resistance to elites (Dieudonné has also denied that he's an anti-Semite). The salute garnered a huge amount of public attention in late 2013, when French soccer player Nicolas Anelka performed it after a goal in an English Premier League game.

nicholas anelka quenelle

Nicolas Anelka performs the quenelle. (Ian Kington/AFP/Getty Images)

So far, the French government has been unable to stamp out the popular use of the quenelle. As it probably shouldn't: it's a little disturbing to think about the government cracking down on a mere gesture.

But the French government is facing a serious spike in anti-Semitic violence, death threats, and vandalism. On the French view of free speech, arresting Dieudonné for a Facebook post is a way of combating that — hypocritical as it seems in the wake of "Je Suis Charlie."

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