France: Ugly jokes and an uglier system
(AWTWNS 20 January 2014)

This AWTWNS news packet for the week of 20 January 2014 contains one article. It may be reproduced or used in any way, in whole or in part, as long as it is credited.

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France: Ugly jokes and an uglier system

21 January 2014. A World to Win News Service. By a reader in France.The situation surrounding France’s recent banning of a performance by comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala is complex and ugly on all sides.

The worst thing about it is that so many people who have suffered oppression themselves are being drawn to a violently anti-Jewish, anti-homosexual and anti-woman bigot. While Dieudonné’s supporters are a fan base and not a political movement, the content of his so-called humour, his understanding of “the system” and what he opposes about it, coincides with core points of France’s rejuvenated fascist currents and organizations for whom immigrants and homosexuals are a target.

Dieudonné’s chief stock in trade is to expose the legal and moral double standards that prevail in France. Many people will tell you that it’s a humour based on the discomfort of the truth and the pleasure of breaking of taboos against telling it. He argues: Why is it a scandal if I make fun of “your grandmother who died at Auschwitz” – and he does that and worse, all but openly praising the genocide of the European Jews – while when it comes to “my grandmother who died under the boots of the French colonialists in Cameroon,” “you” don’t see it in the same light? Why is it illegal to defend or joke about the “crimes against humanity” that took place between 1942-1944 (the genocide of the European Jews) but that label is not applied to the genocide of the Native Americans and slavery? We could add what he doesn’t: Why is it illegal in France to call the gas chambers “controversial”, because that amounts to an implicit denial that they really existed, but when a government minister lectures about “the benefits of colonialism”, that’s considered a legitimate issue for debate?

The political establishment – almost the entire spectrum of what the French call “the political class” of past, present and possible future ministers and high officials – rained down scorn on Dieudonné’s head until a court ruled that his anti-Semitic show was a “threat to public order” and riot police were sent to bar the doors of his theatre. (Since then, he has been allowed to perform a rewritten, less provocative show.) For Dieudonné fans old and new, this extraordinary and perhaps unprecedented legal move only confirmed what he was saying: “public order” means silencing rage against their oppression in the name of respect for Jewish oppression.

The first thing that has to be said is that the French state has no moral right to criticize Dieudonné for anything, including anti-Semitism. The laws against incitement to religious and ethnic hatred, and Holocaust denial (the idea that the genocide of the Jews is a myth mendaciously invented by the Jews themselves), represent hypocrisy in the service of oppression and the rule of the French capitalist class. Today’s rulers obscure the degree of continuity between the French state at the time of the Jewish genocide and now.

After Germany defeated France in 1940, the French parliament called on former army head Philippe Pétain to become prime minister. Later he became head of the French state headquartered in the city of Vichy, which exercised political power in the southern part of France not occupied or administered by Germany. Pétain’s ideology linked the honour of the French fatherland with the traditional family and the Church. His regime enthusiastically, and on its own initiative, rounded up tens of thousands of Jews in unoccupied France, turned over national census lists of Jews to the Germans and zealously helped search out Jews in Paris and other occupied areas. A total of about 75,000 Jews were deported from France to Nazi death camps, along with homosexuals and Gypsies.

The end of the war saw the fall of the Vichy regime, but some of its officials remained in government service. The new regime needed them to implement its own crimes against humanity. French carried out a far more brutal war against the Algerian independence movement than Germany had waged against France. The restored French Republic sent Maurice Papon, a notorious Vichy butcher, to help administer its Algerian colony, and then had him lead a Nazi-like police pogrom against Algerians in Paris.

As for anti-Semitism, it was not Muslim immigrants, as is so often implied, who introduced and nurtured it in France but the Catholic Church. The Church called for crusades and genocide against Muslims, Jews and other “infidels” long before France had an “immigration problem”. The influence of anti-Semitism is so persistent in some French Catholic circles that until 1989 leading clergy sheltered a notorious Vichy official responsible for genocide.

Further on the question of the French ruling class’s moral right to criticize Dieudonné, without going into detail about the lives of Arabs and Africans in France today, we could cite Dieudonné himself. In a sketch about Dominique Strauss-Khan, the head of the IMF and leading French presidential contender who was accused of raping an African maid in his Manhattan hotel room, he quotes the head of Strauss-Khan’s Socialist Party who complained about the undignified conditions of DSK’s arrest (handcuffs, perp walk before the press), saying that DSK had “a right to the presumption of innocence.”

Dieudonné simply repeats those words again and again as he makes eye contact with audience members until everyone breaks up. Most are young. Many have parents who suffered the “benefits of colonialism” and then were brought to break their backs in French mines, factories and construction sites. Today they and other youth are confined in public housing waiting for a future. (In fact, going to a Dieudonné show in central Paris is a big deal, an act of defiance for kids from the banlieue, the broken-down and distant suburbs.) His point is all the more powerful because it doesn’t have to be said. All their lives these youth have been taught by the police and the establishment that they are presumed guilty.

The problem is that after such moments this comic immediately launches into a tirade about how the Jews run France, implying that Strauss-Khan was saved from ignominy by an international conspiracy of prominent Jews (Dieudonné rattles off a half dozen names) accused of rape, child molestation and financial swindling who supposedly protect each other. He rants about why it was considered respectable in political and media circles to argue that Strauss-Khan was the victim of an anti-Socialist plot, while no mercy is shown for people who argue that September 11 was a Jewish conspiracy. This is standard Dieudonné procedure. Instead of arguing that “the Jews” were behind the attack on the World Trade Centre, he simply says that such theories should be considered legitimate – and if this claim can’t be proven, it’s because the Jews won’t allow it. In this way he gets to proclaim that the Jews run France and the world without having to present any evidence – because there isn’t any.

The importance of Israel in Dieudonné’s rise cannot be overestimated. French politicians, especially the Socialists, do seek support from Jewish voters, but that’s a very minor factor. If many French youth are unable to distinguish between Zionism and Jews in general, that’s mainly because they have always been taught that respect for Jews means respect for Israel, in school, by the media and by the political class. Further, Israeli officials and Zionist organizations in France constantly attack even the slightest criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism. While French official circles don’t always like that (the French and other European governments are sometimes the object of Zionist slanders), all this is considered part of legitimate social discourse.

When Arab and other children in France watch television and see Israeli soldiers shooting stun grenades at Palestinian demonstrators and beating even children, and they are taught this may be controversial but after all Israel must remain a Jewish state, the conclusions they draw aren’t surprising. Without Israel, anti-Semitism probably would have remained mainly a problem among white people of French ancestry. Dieudonné has chosen his enemies carefully with his claim that what’s wrong with France is not its capitalist economic and social system, but that its government is a front for Jewish rule.

Never is he more anti-Semitic than when he pretends to claim otherwise: “I’m not anti-Semitic – not yet,” referring to what he says are Jewish attempts to crush him. Or, defending himself from the charge of supporting the Jewish genocide, he says, “When it comes to the conflict between the SS and the Jews I’m neutral. I don’t know who provoked whom.” It’s telling that when talking about homosexuals he drops even the pretence of “neutrality”, openly declaring that he wants to make his audience “go out and eat queers”. This supposedly “cute” additional reference to anti-Black slanders (Africans are cannibals) is used to justify an intolerance so openly violent that merely calling it homophobic doesn’t get it.

In fact, he almost always portrays Jews as effeminate, with high little voices and in a constant state of the kind of hysteria his sketches attribute to women. His trademark “quenelle” gesture, an inverted Nazi salute, ties the whole package together, using a “playful” (that is, plausibly deniable) neo-Nazis gesture to throw together Jews, homosexuals and women as lesser beings who deserve to be penetrated and thus dominated by real men.

Dieudonné may have many followers in public housing, but he promotes and takes lessons from some of the main ideologues of France’s “Catho-fascho” movements from the better-off Western side of Paris. These people long for what they imagine was “traditional” France and hate the idea of a multi-ethnic society. Dieudonné shares with them a reverence for Pétain. When asked his favourite French president, Dieudonné, in his usual sarcastic style, deliberately ambiguous but not really ambiguous at all, said “Pétain, because he had a nice moustache.” He added that Pétain would have known what to do about the problems France faces today.

Anyone who looks at Dieudonné and sees only the class and colour of the people who laugh at his jokes, or that he supposedly singles out rich people, should consider that Pétain, too, had a populist dimension. The question of goals and ideology matter. Pétain’s regime recruited ordinary French youth – shopkeepers’ sons, factory workers and unemployed – into a “revolutionary” militia whose members were allowed to bully better-off Jews and other people who might have once looked down on them.

Where does the “anti-system” Dieudonné stand when it comes to by far the most oppressed ethnicity in France, the country’s official outcasts and scapegoats, the Roma (as Eastern European Gypsies prefer to be called)? His silence on this is striking because Manuel Valls, the Interior Minister who led the attack on Dieudonné, is also France’s chief anti-Roma scourge.

Last year Valls gave a speech about the Roma emphasizing that they cannot expect to be treated like other immigrants because it is “impossible” for them to become integrated into French society. (The truth is that even Gypsies whose families have lived in France for hundreds of years face legal discrimination designed to exclude them.) In fact, Valls’ speech was so vitriolic and racist that if the word Roma were replaced with the word Jew, France’s top cop would be legally obligated to have himself arrested. But Dieudonné gave his most powerful critic a free pass on this particular example of a double standard.

Who are the real rebels against the system when it comes to the Roma? Who is defying the official consensus that some people’s existence is a “threat to public safety”? The Socialist government of François Hollande brags that it has deported twice as many as its rightist predecessor. The strategy is to send armed riot police and bulldozers to smash their squatters camps time and again until the victims agree to “voluntary” deportation. Last summer, police stopped a school bus carrying a 15-year-old girl named Leonarda Dibrani, whose family had registered with the authorities and requested political asylum on the basis of the atrocities inflicted on Roma in Albania. She was taken away in front of her classmates and shipped out of the country immediately so that no legal move could be made to save her.

Tens of thousands of young teenagers walked out of middle school and marched in the streets in support of Leonarda for several days. Indignant and fighting mad, the children and grandchildren of Arab and African as well as French parents, they were very possibly the younger sisters and brothers of people now lined up to see Dieudonné. Similarly, some of those now in that line were probably fighting in the streets during the banlieue revolt and the wild secondary school student protests of the mid-2000s.

Here we come to the heart of the problem. It is truly terrible and tragic that someone like Dieudonné has become an outlet for their rage – any of it. This situation was not inevitable and must be changed. What his “act” is working against, and what makes it beneficial to the system, is an understanding of who are the friends and enemies of the oppressed.

For contradictory reasons, a large percentage of French people have come to despise the left and right parties that have alternated in government with increasingly converging political, social and economic programmes. What remains of the “left” – whose strategy, if not actually in the Socialist Party, was to push the Socialists to the “left” – is self-discredited, usually discouraged and in increasing disarray. The mainstream right complains that the Socialists have stolen their program, while the far right proclaims that it represents radical change. The “left”, and even the so-called far left, can do nothing but defend the status quo that millions find unacceptable. Dieudonné may have half a million multinational followers on YouTube, but the groups and movements most militantly opposing the ruling class consensus are unabashedly from the far right – and militantly white.

Dieudonné represents a complex symbiosis between different brands and strands of reaction. A man who understands his times, his cynical “jokes” have a powerful resonance among many of those who can’t stand the hypocrisy and moral incoherence of today’s social order. But instead of advocating global emancipation from “crimes against humanity” and the oppressive system of capitalism, he wants to get rid of the people he considers in his way. How this could liberate his fan base or even save it from disastrous manipulation is not a question he feels a comedian has to answer.

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