French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday threw his weight behind government efforts to ban performances by a comedian who has been widely condemned as anti-Semitic.
The comedian, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, has been convicted repeatedly for hate speech and has gained prominence in the last year as a result of the Internet-driven success of his trademark "quenelle", an arm gesture some have described as a reverse Nazi salute.
International soccer player Nicolas Anelka, was widely criticized for doing the quenelle after scoring a goal for his team, West Bromwich Albion, last week.
Under the French constitution, the national government cannot, in theory, issue a blanket ban on theatrical performances. It is up to regional prefects – the senior national government officials in charge of policing and other matters - to take decisions based on local considerations.
In practice, the wording of the circular issued by the interior minister, Manuel Valls, on Monday offered them little choice. Hollande removed any doubt by calling on the prefects to be “vigilant and inflexible” in implementing the recommended ban.
It also emerged on Tuesday that the landlords of the theatre in Paris which permanently hosts Dieudonné’s one-man show have decided to give the comedian notice to quit the premises.
The cities of Bordeaux, Nantes and Tours have already announced they will not allow the comic to perform in their theatres.
"The government ... has issued instructions to ensure that no one can use a performance for the goals of provocation and the promotion of overtly anti-Semitic theories," Hollande said, in a New Year address to civil servants. Valls' circular authorized mayors or police chiefs to cancel Dieudonné performances on public order grounds.
The move is expected to face legal challenges on freedom of speech grounds before the scheduled start of Dieudonne's tour in Nantes on Thursday.
Dieudonné’s supporters say the gesture is simply code for an "up yours" message directed at the establishment.
But that claim has been undermined by the publication of pictures of Dieudonné fans performing quenelles outside synagogues, at a Holocaust museum and in front of the school in Toulouse where an Islamist gunman killed a rabbi and three Jewish children in 2012.
Dieudonné's popularity has exacerbated concern over a perceived resurgence of anti-Semitism in France under the guise of anti-Zionism.
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