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Jewish Groups Want Canada to Keep Out a French Comedian Convicted of Inciting Hatred

Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, who's been convicted multiple times under hate speech laws in Europe, insists he isn't anti-Semitic. He's notorious for jokes based on ethnic stereotypes and inflammatory stand-up bits about Jews.

by Tamara Khandaker
Apr 25 2016, 9:15pm

Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala arrives at court in Paris to attend his trial on Jan. 28, 2015. (Photo by Zacharie Scheurer/AP)

Jewish groups in Canada are calling on the federal government to block a well-known "virulent anti-Jewish" French comedian from entering the country to perform in Montreal.

But Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, who's been convicted multiple times under hate speech laws in Europe, may not be able to reach Montreal, where he's scheduled to do 10 sold-out shows in May, anyway because of his criminal record.

"A person who incites racial hatred and foments social tensions in Europe isn't welcome in Montreal," tweeted Mayor of Montreal Denis Coderre about the comedian on Friday.

But the promoters of the shows in Canada say the comedian's message has changed, and that his new show, titled "In Peace," isn't offensive in the least.

M'bala M'bala, better known as just Dieudonné, is slated to perform at a small downtown art gallery in Montreal, where four of his shows were cancelled in 2012 after Jewish groups expressed concern. He also has an appearance booked in Trois-Rivières, with plans to add dates in Quebec City.

"The [Jewish groups] are doing what they're supposed to do. In the past, there's been a lot of controversy, and they don't know the new show," said Louis Tall, one of the promoters.

"The new show is about all the problems he's had for the past 10 years and about his life in the spotlight," Tall said, pointing out that Dieudonné is even producing a show by a young Jewish comedian called "My response to Dieudonné."

The Paris-born comedian of half-French, half-Cameroonian descent came to prominence with strong anti-racist, largely left-wing material in the 1990s, performing alongside his childhood friend and Jewish comedian Élie Semoun. In the early 2000s, however, critics say his comedy shifted sharply into anti-Semitic territory.

He's been arrested at least 38 times under French hate speech laws.

Dieudonné, who insists he isn't anti-Semitic, is notorious for jokes based on ethnic stereotypes and inflammatory stand-up bits about Jews — he has publicly denied the Holocaust, claimed France is run by Jewish "slave drivers," and is credited with inventing a hand gesture known as the "quenelle," which critics say looks like an inverted Nazi salute.

Last November, a Belgian court fined and sentenced the comedian to two months in jail for making anti-Semitic jokes and denying the Holocaust, as well as calling on Muslims and Christians to unite to kill Jews, at a show in 2012.

'I don't think free speech requires us to invite people who have served time in jail for spewing this kind of garbage.'

That month, the European Court of Human Rights also upheld a French court's decision that Dieudonne was guilty of inciting racial hatred — the case stemmed from 2008 incident in which he invited a Holocaust-denying academic on stage to collect a prize from an actor wearing striped pyjamas, meant to resemble a concentration camp uniform.

In March of last year, a French court handed Dieudonne a two-month suspended sentence for condoning terrorism after he posted "I feel like Charlie Coulibaly," just days after a terrorist attacks in Paris left 17 people dead.

Dieudonne said the comment, which combined the slogan "Je suis Charlie" — a show of solidarity with the murdered journalists of French publication Charlie Hebdo — with Amedy Coulibaly, one of three gunmen involved the attacks, was meant to show how often he himself feels like he's treated like a terrorist.

He's also barred from performing in several French cities and banned from entering Hong Kong and Britain.

"Free speech ends when calls for violence start," David Oulette of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs told VICE News. The centre, along with other Jewish groups, is calling on Ottawa to keep Dieudonné out.

"We are no longer in the domain of free speech. We're in the domain of a multiple offender who incites violence against a specific and identifiable group of people," he said. "It's a matter of public security."

"There's no doubt that there is a very urgent anti-Semitic problem in France, and Mr. Dieudonne is certainly a part of that," he continued. "He has contributed to mainstreaming and trivialaizing violent anti-Jewish rhetoric."

Canadian Border Services Agents will decide whether or not the comedian will be allowed in once he arrives at a port of entry.

Related: This Comedian Is Fighting for His Right to 'Make Fun of Everything'

"Admissibility of all travellers is decided on a case-by-case basis and based on the information made available at the time of entry," said spokesperson Marie-Claude Chiasson in an email.

"Several factors are used in determining admissibility into Canada, including involvement in criminal activity, in human rights violations, in organized crime, security, health or financial reasons."

Mushagalusa Chigoho, owner of the gallery where Dieudonne is supposed to perform, told the CBC that he knew Dieudonné was controversial, and that he'd found nothing offensive when he looked over the script of the upcoming show.

"There was nothing insulting, nothing degrading, nothing racist. I can't be responsible for what he's said in the past," Chigoho said.

Steven Slimovitch, lawyer for B'nai Brith Canada, said the organization doesn't care how Dieudonné's performances are stopped, whether it's as a result of a CBSA decision or venues deciding not to host him. B'nai Brith, however, will send a recommendation to the CBSA that he not be allowed entry.

"There's no benefit whatsoever for a convicted hater to come to Canada. We have to remember that coming to Canada is a privilege, not a right," Slimovitch said. "I don't think free speech requires us to invite people who have served time in jail for spewing this kind of garbage."

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk