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France Accused of Double Standard After Comedian Arrested During Hate Speech Crackdown

Notorious comedian Dieudonné was arrested over a controversial Facebook post, one of more than 50 people detained Wednesday by French authorities.
Photo via AP/ Michel Euler

Notorious French comedian Dieudonné was arrested Wednesday over a controversial Facebook post, part of a broader crackdown on hate speech in the aftermath of last week's Paris terror attacks.

Dieudonné was among more than 50 people arrested in a clampdown on expressions of anti-Semitism and glorification of terrorism that some say is at odds with the freedom of speech French leaders have so fervently embraced following the massacre at the satirical — and some say hateful — magazine Charlie Hebdo.


French authorities said 54 people, including four minors, were arrested for hate speech and support of terrorism in the last week alone — though none have been directly linked to the recent attacks. If convicted of inciting terrorism online, they each could face up to seven years in jail, the Associated Press reported.

Alex Gourevitch, an assistant professor of political science at Brown University, told VICE News the arrests are in direct contradiction with the massive show of support for free speech in the last week, which included French and world leaders marching at the helm of one of the largest demonstrations in French history.

"It's hypocrisy and opportunism among the French political class," Gourevitch said. "They were only interested in marching in favor of free speech when they saw an opportunity to appropriate the glow of being with the victims of the attack, but they were never serious about the principle of free speech, and they haven't been for a long time."

Banned comedian and incendiary essayist form controversial new political party in France. Read more here.

Dieudonné — a French-Cameroonian comedian whose career has been marked and boosted by controversy — was arrested Wednesday after posting a Facebook message that expressed sympathy for Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who killed four hostages at a kosher market in Paris last Friday.

"Tonight, as far as I'm concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly," Dieudonné wrote Monday, using a play on words that mixed the dead gunman's name with the ubiquitous "Je suis Charlie" slogan.


In another post, Dieudonné called out Bernard Cazeneuve, France's interior minister, for attempting to silence him while promoting Charlie Hebdo's right to the same kind of offensive comedy. Cazeneuve previously called the comedian's words an "abjection."

"Whenever I speak, you do not try to understand what I'm trying to say, you do not want to listen to me," Dieudonné wrote. "You are looking for a pretext to forbid me. You consider me like Amedy Coulibaly when I am not any different from Charlie.

"It seems like you do not care about my words," he continued, "unless you can distort them and use them to fill yourself with indignation."

The anti-religion and anti-establishment history of Charlie Hebdo. Read more here.

It's not the first time Dieudonné has run afoul of the law. French authorities shut down his shows in the past, calling them "anti-Semitic," and he has been convicted several times for defamation, libel, and incitement to hatred and racial discrimination. But the attempts to silence him seem to have made him more popular — particularly among young children of African and North African immigrants who feel marginalized in French society, a New Yorker profile of the comedian noted.

Dieudonné has made the fine line between free speech and hate speech the very essence of his work. He is famous for creating the "quenelle," a gesture that is essentially a reverse Nazi salute — provocative because the actual Nazi salute is banned in France.


The comedian participated in Sunday's massive march unity rally in Paris, describing it as "a magical moment comparable to the big bang," the Guardian reported.

The hashtag #JeSuisDieudonne spread Wednesday on social media as the comedian's supporters pointed to the irony and double standards behind his arrest.

"Are we in the country of freedom of speech?" David de Stefano, one of the Dieudonné's lawyers, told French newspaper Le Monde. "This morning, the government just gave us a demonstration of that."

French comedian Dieudonné arrested for a tweet…freedom of speech doesn't apply to everybody apparently^^— Sekela Iman Karlsson (@SekelaImani)January 14, 2015

So if I tweet— Samia Shoaib (@TheWhackyPaki)January 14, 2015

Free Speech is only applicable when the people in charge of it agree with what you're saying.— Joseph Conklin (@PlanetJoetopia)January 14, 2015

In addition to the crackdown on speech, French officials rushed to unveil a broad series of "anti-terrorism" measures, including phone tapping and school reforms.

"It reminds me a little bit about how things were like in the US after 9/11, this shared sense of victimization, a kind of moral panic, and a propensity to overreact to the events and to then want authoritarian measures in the name of security," Gourevitch said. "I just hope that the public doesn't end up supporting the same kind of crackdown and overreaction on Muslims and immigrants that happened in the United States."


Officials defended the crackdown on hate speech, informing prosecutors and judges that religious beliefs could not be used as a justification for hate speech — measures likely to reignite long-running debates in France about secularism and religious freedom.

"We have all heard 'Yes, I support Charlie,' but the double standards, the 'Why defend liberty of expression here and not there?'" Education Minister Najat Vallaud Belkacem told the AP. "These questions are intolerable above all when we hear them at school, which has the duty to teach our values."

The cover of today's edition of Charlie Hebdo — three million copies of which sold out as soon as they hit newsstands — once again depicted the Prophet Mohammed, which is considered an insult by some Muslims. Charlie Hebdo was also notorious for cartoons considered by some faiths and ethnic groups to be offensive and racist.

Anti-Islam rallies are gathering support in Germany in wake of 'Charlie Hebdo' attacks. Read more here.

If French authorities stand behind that, they should also stand behind Dieudonné, some said.

"I think that whether they are hateful or not they should be permitted," Gourevitch said. "I think Dieudonné should enjoy free speech even though he says vile, anti-Semitic and offensive things, and I think Charlie Hebdo has every right to publish offensive images."

Gourevitch suggested that people who say the type of speech of used by Dieudonné or Charlie Hebdo is an incitement to violence "are just covering up their own prejudices and insecurities."

"It is a double standard to arrest all of these people for supposedly offensive speech but then say that Charlie Hebdo has the right to publish offensive cartoons," he said. "The principle should be free speech for Dieudonné and free speech for Charlie Hebdo."

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi