The French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala went on trial yesterday for predicting that a Jewish radio presenter would end up in the gas chamber.
Fans turned out to applaud him as he arrived to answer charges of “inciting racial hatred”.
He told the court in Paris that he was a “comedian, not a historian”. Dieudonné – whose trade-mark gesture, the Nazi-style salute the quenelle, caused controversy last year – risks a possible prison sentence after three convictions for the same offence in the past eight years.
He will also appear in court next Wednesday on the potentially more serious charge of “apology for terrorism” after seeming to praise Amédy Coulibaly, who murdered a policewoman, and killed four hostages at a Jewish supermarket in Paris.
In yet another court hearing last week, Dieudonné, 48, was found guilty of making illegal appeals to the public to pay his fines for past convictions. He was fined €6,000 (£4,490).
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The rash of cases against him coincides with the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. It also comes the day after the publication of statistics suggesting that antisemitic acts, ranging from insults to robberies to attacks on synagogues, doubled in France last year.
Dieudonné’s many fans, from the far right to “anti- Zionist” Muslim youth and the conspiracy-loving hard left – point to another coincidence. They say the “persecution” of Dieudonné is proof that France has double standards on free speech. Why, they ask, is Dieudonné prosecuted for making fun of Jews when the murdered Charlie Hebdo journalists are seen as martyrs to “Republican values” after publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad?
The prime minister, Manuel Valls, responded angrily to these arguments last week. There was no comparison, he said, between the magazine’s “impudent” mockery of terrorists who kill for religious reasons and Dieudonné’s mockery of the Holocaust. Mr Valls called Dieudonné a “peddler of hate”.
The comedian was charged with “making public insults” and “inciting racial hatred” in his touring stage show in December 2013. Later the same month, he shot to international attention when his friend, the footballer Nicolas Anelka, made the quenelle gesture during a Premiership match.
In his show, banned last January and then amended, Dieudonné pursued a long-standing quarrel with Patrick Cohen, a Jewish journalist who presents the morning radio show on France Inter. Dieudonné said: “When the wind turns, I’m not sure he’ll have time to pack his bags. When I hear Patrick Cohen talking, it reminds me, you see, of the gas chambers. Pity.”
In court, he said that he was responding to “racist attacks” by Mr Cohen who had called him “sick in the brain”.