There was a time, about a decade ago, when Dieudonné was a Gallic Lenny Henry. His stand-up comedy was biting, satirical but ultimately good-humoured. Above all, he was funny.
He first achieved success in tandem with a Jewish comedian, Elie Semoun. Their double act joyfully exploited, and exploded, racial stereotypes.
At that time, Dieudonné – his full name is Dieudonné M’bala M’bala – campaigned on and off the stage against racism. He was, he said, a black man who refused “to dance the calypso with a banana stuck up my a***”.
Today, the Paris public prosecutor’s office opened a preliminary investigation against Dieudonné for “incitement to racial hatred” – the umpteenth investigation of its kind. Several have resulted in convictions for fomenting hatred of Jews.
Last week the French interior minister, Manuel Valls, said that he was investigating ways of banning all public appearances by Dieudonné as a potential threat to public order. Both investigations flow from the same incident.
In a recent TV documentary, Dieudonné, 47, was filmed during a one-man show talking about a well-known French-Jewish radio presenter. “When I hear Patrick Cohen talking, you see, I think of gas ovens. Pity,” the comedian said.
At the weekend, the French footballer Nicolas Anelka brought Dieudonné‘s name to a wider audience. After scoring a goal for West Bromwich Albion at Upton Park – in the heart of what used to be Jewish east London – Anelka performed a provocative gesture invented by his friend, Dieudonné.
La quenelle or “the meat ball” consists of pointing towards the ground with a flattened hand while folding the other arm across your chest. Dieudonné says that this gesture is a symbol of popular revolt – an “act of emancipation” – against “the system”.
His critics say that it is a manifestly anti-Semitic gesture and they believe that it is understood as such by the vast majority of Dieudonné’s supporters. The gesture is, critics say, an inverted Nazi salute merged with the obscene, French hand signal, the bras d’honneur. In his stage shows, Dieudonné always uses the word quenelle in its slang meaning as a “finger” or a “penis”. He says, for instance, that he wants to slide his quenelle into the “fundament” of Zionism or into the “a***hole” of President François Hollande.
Nonetheless, Nicolas Anelka insisted this week that he knows of no anti-Semitic ulterior meaning for the quenelle gesture.
Who is Dieudonné? He was born in 1966 in the south suburbs of Paris. His father was from Cameroon. His mother was Breton. He had a successful career as an actor and comedian (including an appearance in the movie Asterix and Cleopatra)
From roughly 2004 Dieudonné metamorphosed from an anti-far-right comedian and social commentator into a French version of Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam in the US. Dieudonné presents the Jews as the main source of black misery. He suggests that the obsession with the suffering of the Jews soaks up too much of the limited global fund of guilt that should be invested in black people.
Despite his attempts to rationalise his position as “populist” and “anti-system” Dieudonné has drifted in recent years into outright Jew-baiting. Despite his positioning on the conspiratorial eft, he has become increasingly close to the far right.
The driving force for the conversion of Dieudonné to extremist politics is unclear. Some critics suggest that his motivation is money. Performances at his own shabby theatre near the Bastille and on his French tours – one of which begins in Nantes next week – are always sold out.
Other critics suggest that Dieudonné is now a politician rather than an entertainer or social commentator. Anne-Sophie Mercier, a TV journalist who published a book on Dieudonné believes that the lurch into anti-Semitism is part of a calculated strategy.
He wants to become a political leader partly of the disaffected left but mostly of young blacks and Muslims, she argues. It is easier to persuade them to hate Jews than to turn them against a white bourgeois society whose material symbols of success they crave.