Notorious Comedian’s Gesture sparks Debate on Freedom of Speech
France, 15 Dec – 15 Jan 2014
La quenelle: the “obscene clowning of a pitiful buffoon” ++ Heavy storms in Brittany – again ++ President Hollande’s New Year’s resolution
by Matthieu Choblet
La quenelle: the “obscene clowning of a pitiful buffoon”
The controversy surrounding a supposedly humoristic show put the French artist Dieudonné M’bala M’bala at the centre of public attention during the last weeks. Dieudonné is the ‘inventor’ of a controversial hand gesture dubbed la quenelle. But what is “la quenelle”? Originally, the term described a French fish or meatball dish, which Dieudonné reportedly wished to “put into Zionism’s butt”. The corresponding gesture had been part of Dieudonné’s stage show for years without drawing much attention, until things changed recently.
First, two soldiers were photographed making the gesture in front of a synagogue. Also, a police officer put a photography online showing himself in uniform doing the ominous gesture. Finally, French footballer Nicolas Anelka performed a quenelle in celebration of a goal in December. So is the quenelle an insinuation of the Nazi salute, a distinctive mark for all kinds of anti-Semites or just another vulgar insult without any political meaning?
Dieudonné’s supporters claim it is a sign of defiance against a corrupt establishment. Critics point to Dieudonné’s arguable political attitude and say it is a sign that incites racial hatred. Dieudonné, whose father is from Cameroon, claims to be anti-racist and a victim of intolerance. Yet he maintains a good relationship with Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former leader of the French far-right political party Front National.
The controversy reached its climax when the Justice Minister Christiane Taubira called Dieudonné a “pitiful buffoon”, whose gesture was just part of the “obscene clownings of a chronic anti-semite”. Simultaneously, French Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls encouraged local authorities to declare a stage ban against Dieudonné, “the entrepreneur of hate”. Indeed, Dieudonné has already been sentenced eight times for anti-semitic language and racial abuse in the past.
Nonetheless, some people wonder if it was right for the government to intervene the way it did. The fierce reaction of France’s political elite makes Dieudonné a martyr of political correctness in the eyes of his followers. A spokesman of the Front National accused the government of an attack on freedom of speech. Even among democratic parties there is a high level of insecurity about how to handle the case. Critics point to the fact, that while Dieudonné is well known for his belligerent language, it is questionable to ban a show which is not per se anti-semitic on the pure grounds of what the artist might be wanting to say. Last week, Dieudonné has announced that he was going to change the concept of his show. It remains unclear whether the conceptual change will be an improvement.
Heavy storms in Brittany – again
During Christmas, Brittany and the north of France were hit by a heavy storm with strong winds of up to 113km/h. A torrential rain caused flooding and 240,000 homes were cut off from the power grid. Days after the storm, the government was still having difficulties assessing the full extent of the damage. .
In the previous months, Brittany had been shaken by storms of another kind, as the ‘Red Caps’, protesters forced the French government to back down from its plans to introduce a new road-tax. Fearing more political protests the French government was eager to show that after the storm Paris would not leave Brittany behind. Still, its cautious – some even say sluggish – reaction to the natural catastrophe of December gave way to new criticism. Meanwhile, the Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls admitted that the early warning systems for floods needed to be improved.
President Hollande’s New Year’s resolution
On Friday 3rd January, the French government met for its traditional first council meeting of the year in the sumptuous offices of the Ministry of the Interior in the centre of Paris. President François Hollande presented his New Year’s wishes to the assembled ministers and appealed to the government’s unity and sense of duty – without explicitly mentioning the disputes surrounding the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira and the popular Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls.
Furthermore, Hollande put three objectives on top of the government’s agenda: “employment, less deficit spending and energy transition”. However a French economic research institute questions the government’s intention to simultaneously reduce corporate taxes and government spending on a national and regional level. The economists point to the already low demand that plagues the French economy, while public debt remains high.
Observers were also intrigued by the government`s intent to bypass difficult parliamentary debates by resorting not only to law-making but also to ordinances and presidential decrees, which do not require the consent of the legislative assembly. It was said that the government hopes to regain the sympathy of the French voters before the forthcoming municipal election by showing quick action and avoiding any dissent. Among other topics, the government will have to decide very soon on a limitation of the number of mandates that can be held concurrently.
* first published on Cosmopublic.eu *