Mayors of French towns and cities have presented a united front to ban performances by a comedian the government accuses of insulting the memory of Holocaust victims and threatening public order with anti-Semitic jibes.
Local authorities in Nantes barred the opening date in Dieudonne M’bala M’bala’s tour, set for Thursday this week, hours after similar shows were banned by mayors in Marseille, Bordeaux and Tours.
The row is the latest upset to ties between France’s large Muslim and Jewish communities. It won international attention last week after former France striker Nicolas Anelka celebrated an English Premier League goal with a salute popularised by Mr Dieudonne which critics say has an anti-Semitic connotation.
“I am calling on all representatives of the state, particularly its prefects, to be on alert and inflexible,” president François Hollande said yesterday, referring to regional officials charged with maintaining law and order in France.
“No-one should be able to use this show for provocation and to promote openly anti-Semitic ideas,” he told a meeting of senior government officials in Paris.
Lawyers for Mr Dieudonne, 47, who has been fined repeatedly for hate speech, said they would defend him.
“Freedom of expression is not at the whim of governments or a comedian,” they said in a statement announcing the launch of legal complaints for defamation and invasion of privacy.
They accused the Socialist government of using the issue to rally voters ahead of municipal and European elections, where widespread anger at unemployment is seen as fuelling support for the far-right National Front.
Its leader, Marine Le Pen, has striven to distance the party from its earlier anti-Semitic leanings. She told Le Figaro newspaper she was “shocked” by Mr Dieudonne, but criticised the government for exaggerating the importance of the affair.
Supporters of Mr Dieudonne have said the public order argument is false because he performs inside theatres rather than in the streets.
Mr Dieudonne denies his gesture – known as the “quenelle” – is anti-Semitic. He has been convicted more than a half-dozen times for inciting racial hatred or anti-Semitism over the years.
He was most recently convicted last autumn for using the word “Shoananas”, a mash-up of the Hebrew word for “Holocaust”, which is used in France, and the French word for “pineapple”. The song of the same name was seen as deriding Holocaust survivors and victims.
Interior minister Manuel Valls pushed to ban Mr Dieudonne’s shows after Jewish groups complained about his trademark straight-arm gesture, which they call a “Nazi salute in reverse” and have linked to a growing frequency of anti-Semitic remarks and acts in France.
In the worst recent incident, a French Islamist killed a rabbi and three pupils at a Jewish school last year in the southwestern city of Toulouse.
Mr Dieudonne, the Paris-born son of a Cameroonian father and French mother, has said the gesture is a statement of his anti-Zionist and anti-establishment views, not anti-Semitism.
West Bromwich Albion striker Anelka is being investigated by the English Football Association for using the gesture during a 28 December match. NBA basketball star Tony Parker, a Frenchman, has apologised in the US for a three-year-old photo of him making the salute.
Two soldiers were sanctioned by the army in September for making the gesture in uniform in front of a Paris synagogue.
Supporters have submitted photos to fan websites of themselves making the sign at Berlin’s Holocaust memorial and near the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.