by David Sugarman
In the mid-1990s, it was hard to get away from a comedy duo called Élie and Dieudonné. They appeared frequently on light entertainment programmes on French television, and they alternated long-running shows in Paris theatres with nationwide tours, before eventually going their separate ways in 1997. They were an odd couple: Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, the son of a Cameroonian father and Brittany-born mother, was black, big and well-built, deep voiced, slow-speaking, calm; Élie Semoun, the son of Jewish Moroccan immigrants, was white, short and wiry, a high-pitched voice, fast-talking, neurotic. Their comedy routines played on the contrasts between them, principally of the stereotypes that they represented. Subtlety was not one of their hallmarks.
Self-deprecatory comedy can be effective at taking the sting out of racism and other forms of intolerance. But you have to be laughing with rather than laughing at. It’s a cliché to say that it’s OK for black comedians to use the N-word, that they are “claiming ownership” of it. It’s often said that Jewish jokes told by Jews are funny, but told by non-Jews they can be offensive. In the case of Élie and Dieudonné’s comedy routines, they sailed close to the wind: it’s a fine line between “self-deprecatory” and “derogatory”.
As I was starting to write this piece, I took a look at some of the pair’s sketches on YouTube, to remind myself of them: their heyday was 20 years or so ago. The title of one sketch caught my eye: “Cohen and Bokassa”. The two begin by playing children and start arguing over a ball (“it’s my ball…” “it’s mine now…”) and come to blows. They dash offstage and come straight back on as the fathers of the two boys. Each starts by defending his own son but the dialogue soon denigrates into a slanging match. The two adults start fighting just as viciously as their sons. Blackout. Ha ha.
So what does the slanging match consist of? A series of racial slurs. It starts out with the Jew attacking the Black: “The building’s full of you lot – so where are the cotton fields?” It gets a bit nastier: “Still on benefits, are you? It must pay for the bananas.” All right, these were less sophisticated times. In the UK we had Mind Your Language and Love Thy Neighbour in the 70s, not to mention Till Death Us Do Part in the 60s, so let’s just say that Élie and Dieudonné were simply mocking racist attitudes, and move on, shall we? No. We won’t. Because Dieudonné’s very next line is: “In 1945, Cohen, the Jerries should have finished the job.” Taken aback, the Jewish character asks the Black character to repeat what he has just said. Which he does, but in what the script of the sketch calls “in an African language” (unspecified).
Where is the humour in that line? There’s nothing new about satirising Nazism – Chaplin, Lubitsch and most notably Mel Brooks have all done it. But who could make a joke of the Holocaust itself? Dieudonné, that’s who. Not only in this sketch, but in numerous appearances in theatres and on video in recent years. One of his contributions to the corpus of French comedy consists of a song called Shoananas, an invented word combining Shoah, the term for the Holocaust generally used in French, and ananas, the French word for pineapple. The song parodies a particularly idiotic children’s song (itself more than a little racist) about hot chocolate, called Cho Ka Ka O. For this gem, and various other monologues, stand-up routines, sketches and Internet performances (including mock interviews with a well-known Holocaust denier), M’bala M’bala has been fined on a number of occasions. Reportedly, none of these fines has been paid. The French Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, has talked about inflicting a performance ban because of the anti-Semitic content of his latest show, which is due to transfer from a Paris theatre (which he owns, incidentally) to a nationwide tour.
Sadly, Dieudonné has a large and loyal following in France. I wish I could claim that they are simply devotees of alternative comedy, albeit comedy of a highly dubious nature. He has an engaging personality, he is a skilled and experienced performer. But this does not account for his popularity: unfortunately, the only conclusion to draw is that his fans share his views. Anti-Semitism is a crime in France. The expression of racial hatred is a crime in France. Every performance given by M’bala M’bala, not to mention press and media interviews, seems to contain a new example of his views. Just the other evening, referring to a French radio journalist who is Jewish, he mused, “I can’t help thinking of the gas ovens.” Not even Jean-Marie Le Pen at his most crass would have gone quite that far.
Dieudonné has been in the news a great deal across the planet recently. For once, he hasn’t particularly drawn attention to himself; the world’s media have been attracted by an even more skilful attention-seeker, one Nicolas Anelka. The story will be familiar to most readers. Anelka, a controversial French-born footballer currently playing for West Brom in the English Premier League, scored a goal in a televised match the other day and in his so-called “celebration” performed a gesture that is known as the “quenelle” (which consists of keeping one arm straight and putting the opposite hand to the shoulder or upper arm). This gesture was invented by Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, and forms part of his act.
Now, I write as one who once created a fascist salute. This fact is unknown to everyone except the cast of a student production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well in Bristol in 1982 (and a few hundred spectators). I had no personal delusions of grandeur: I was playing the minor role of the Duke of Florence (in whose army the play’s hero briefly serves), and we decided to play a short rabble-rousing scene in a style vaguely inspired by il Duce, aka Mussolini. I thought up a gesture that would get everyone on stage (plus a sound effects tape) to roar in approval (if I remember rightly, I struck my chest twice, left and right, with my right hand and stuck my arm straight up in the air). By comparison, Dieudonné’s salute is a bit of a damp squib!
My personal theory is that it is inspired in part by Peter Sellers’ portrayal of Dr. Strangelove. The character’s right arm has a life of its own as it battles to perform the Nazi salute at every opportunity, while his left hand struggles valiantly to prevent it. Likewise in the “quenelle” the straight arm is prevented from springing up into a Nazi salute by the restraining hand on the shoulder or upper arm. But what does it mean? It’s said that its meaning is anti-Semitic. Is there any proof of this? I originally intended to answer this question by posting a link to a file that a friend of mine shared the other day, containing more than 70 photographs of people performing the gesture against backgrounds that allow for no ambiguity whatever: synagogues, Holocaust memorials, Jewish museums and kindergartens, the Wailing Wall, street signs including the word Juif (“Jewish”) and Juiverie (“Jewry”), and so on. I have decided against posting it publicly, but I will be happy to share it with anyone who emails me. It is chilling.
Nicolas Anelka has tried to get out of a potential 10-match ban by saying that he understood it to be “anti-system” and not anti-Semitic. Believe him if you want; I don’t. The English Football Association’s “Kick It Out” campaign against racism in football is likely to see a stringent punishment applied to him. In France, President François Hollande and the Sports Minister, Valérie Fourneyron, have issued condemnatory statements about the use of the “quenelle”. Will it be banned? It may be utopian to think so. And unfortunately, I fear that it might actually come to greater prominence on France’s own football terraces. In France, there is no equivalent of the “Kick It Out” movement, and certain groups of so-called supporters – most notably those of Paris St Germain – are not exactly noted for their neutrality in matters of racial discrimination.