Paris: President Francois Hollande has backed attempts to ban controversial French comedian Dieudonne as a furore intensified over his sketches that have been widely condemned as anti-Semitic.
A French newspaper added to the pressure on the outspoken Dieudonne, reporting that he owes tax authorities more than 800,000 euros and is being investigated for suspected money laundering.
Weighing into a debate that has gripped France, Hollande urged local officials to apply an interior ministry circular authorising city mayors or police chiefs to cancel performances of the comic, Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala, on public order grounds.
Several cities and towns, among them Nantes and Bordeaux, have declared prohibitions on shows the comedian, who goes by his first name, was to have staged.
Officials said there was a risk of violent clashes between fans and protesters.
Police in Paris are also “seriously considering” banning an upcoming show in the capital, an informed source said.
Hollande said the interior ministry instructions were to “ensure that no one can use a performance for the goals of provocation and the promotion of overtly anti-Semitic theories,” without specifically mentioning Dieudonne. But the bans are expected to face legal challenges on freedom of speech grounds.
Dieudonne’s lawyer Jacques Verdier said his client would “act immediately” against any performance ban. Dieudonne’s tour was to have started Thursday in Nantes and run until June. He appears to be guaranteed an audience in Switzerland at least, where he is due to play for 10 nights in a 460-seat venue in the small town of Nyon.
Local official Olivier Mayor told AFP that Dieudonne could not be banned there because of a precedent set when Geneva tried to ban him several years ago with a decision that was overturned by a judge.
“You can’t convict someone in advance, we live by the rule of law,” Mayor said.
Attempts to ban Dieudonne have also sparked misgivings amongst some opponents of the comic in France, who fear that such moves only fuel his popularity with his target audience and enhance his opportunities to cash in on the notoriety.
Dieudonne, 47, is the son of a father from Cameroon and a white French mother. He has been performing anti-Semitic material for years but gained greater prominence in recent months as a result of the Internet-driven success of the “quenelle”, his trademark straight arm gesture which some have described as a reverse Nazi salute.
Footballer Nicolas Anelka, a former member of France’s national team, stirred up a row by performing the gesture during a goal celebration for his English club West Brom last month.
Defenders of the comic say the gesture is simply a coded “up yours” directed at the French establishment and thousands of ordinary French people have used it without being aware of any racist overtones.
The gesture has taken on sinister connotations, however, with the publication of pictures of Dieudonne fans performing quenelles outside synagogues, at a holocaust museum and in front of the school in Toulouse where in 2012 an Islamist gunman killed a rabbi and three Jewish children.