November 21, 2014
For the Herald
Comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala and the infamous quenelle
THE HAGUE — Somewhere in the world, it is not impossible that a convention of the like-minded is meeting at this moment to join in re-enactments of the historic opus of Monty Python. The dead parrot sketch, the Spanish Inquisition, the funny one about the cheese shop. Countless living rooms are now, right now, being forced to endure half-remembered reconstructions, probably by a tipsy man in a V-necked jersey, of routines from dead comedians of decades ago. But since when, and how, have comics started getting the masses to salute?
This question goes to heart of the strange scandal in France of the quenelle. “Invention” is an ambitious word for anyone given to creating stylized hand movements. Even so, let us say that the comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala invented this hand gesture around about 2005. It now seems that thousands of French people have taken to using the salute, which, it may now be worth knowing, is named after a rissole of creamed fish popular in the city of Lyon.
What, if anything, did Dieudonné intend by stretching one arm down and clasping his other hand to the shoulder? “Doing a little quenelle is a sort of bras d’honneur at the system,” the comic has said on his most recent interview, to be found in a Belgian webzine. The term translates as an obscene gesture with arms and hand, broadly signifying “up yours.” “And well, with a dimension in the arse. A carrot in the arse,” he specifies, helpfully.
More importantly, what does this scatological spasm mean now that it has become a rebel act of seemingly thousands of fed-up French people, who carry out the gesture in all places, at all times, before uploading the non-experience on to the requisite social media? What significance does this mass rebel selfie have when a number of followers feel compelled to use Dieudonné’s gesture as a reverse Nazi salute in places where Jews pray, or where they were once rounded up and killed? And, since we are dealing in the end with a craze begun by a professional comedian, is the hot air in fact emanating from the performer’s bottom line? As he repeats in his latest youtube offering: get the new DVD at 43 euros a go.
The height of French state power evidently takes the matter most seriously. Following an appeal from Interior Minister Manuel Valls, the Council of State, the ultimate court of law in the country, last week issued a summary ruling prohibiting performances by Dieudonné of his new one-man show, Le Mur. Apparently, the comic, if we should continue to call him that, has patched together a newer and less offensive routine. Valls for his part only seems to be warming up, with talk that he will pursue Dieudonné and his quenelle-raisers to hell and back, or at least force then from Google and into the reaches of the Dark Web.
Valls has strong arguments to make. Born to a Cameroonian father and French mother, Dieudonné entered comedy in a double act alongside a Jewish partner, with the two of them merrily deconstructing the stereotypes of multicultural France. But Sesame Street on the Seine wore him out. A few years later, seemingly gripped by conspiracy theories about September 11, some diatribe about the Elders of Zion and a bit of Holocaust-doubting, he began to find pleasure in the company of France’s leading xenophobes and anti-Semites.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front pioneer, is the godfather of one of his daughters. He has six convictions for inciting hatred against Jews. His hit song from last year was Shoananas, eliding the Shoah, or Holocaust, with the French word for pineapples.
Yet Dieudonné does not make it easy for his accusers, and the legitimacy of the ban on his performance, as the centre-left newspaper Le Monde admits, leaves much to be desired. His words are not those of Hitler’s Mein Kampf — incidentally, selling fast as an e-book since it can be read anonymously on public transport. Dieudonné’s most inflammatory comments are gestures, or snippets half-heard or deniable due to their double meanings. The chase for a transparently hateful remark appears to amuse him and fire up his wells of inner victimhood, which his followers seem to share.
“I’m not anti-Semitic,” he declares in one recent video. “I have not chosen between the Jews and the Nazis. I’m neutral in this affair.”
Whether or not his verbiage is toxic, the question of whether it should be censored remains complex. But an equally pressing concern revolves around what meaning should be given to this latest development in European public life. A charitable interpretation would see Dieudonné as the far-right end of a new spectrum of funny men who also proselytize, prophesy doom and herald a new global order. Beppe Grillo in Italy, Russell Brand in Britain and this sinister Frenchman attract much more devotion than any politician from their home countries because their livelihood comes from unpicking claptrap and common sense before a late-night audience, and they know how to use Twitter.
Rule by comics, which the Greeks may have called “komoidocracy” had such a notion not been so laughable, is doubtless a treat in store for all of us. Yet a more sinister take on the rise of Dieudonné, and his gift for turning censorship into persecution, or Jews into Nazis, stems from the sense that here we find yet another instance of the European far right dissimulating its recovery through a strategy of confusion, identification with the underdog, and restoration of the old clichés. Possibly the closest equivalent to Dieudonné is not the revolutionary spiritualist and recovering addict Brand, but the new-look far right of modern Europe: Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and others who bit by bit are reinventing their language and stealing the cloaks of the left, whether welfare, community and equality, so as to stage a momentous comeback.