BRUSSELS - The Chateau de Vaugrenier is an elegant, Italian-style palace built toward the end of the 16th century on France’s Cote d’Azur, not far from Nice. It was initially inhabited by the archbishop of Arles, but in 1750 it was bought by the family that still owns it today, whose current representatives are Countess Elisabeth de Vanssay and her daughter, Nadèje le Lédan. Because the noblewoman’s finances aren’t what they once were, she rents it out for parties and other events through a management company.
Last weekend, an impresario rented the chateau’s gardens to perform “classical theater,” according to the contract. But Valerie Rieu, a representative of the management company, began to suspect something else was going on. As she told the French daily Le Figaro, “Doubts arose when I saw the profile of the people gathering there.” And when an audience member was asked what he expected to see, he replied, “A one-man show by Dieudonne.”
This could indeed be classical, but in the sense of classical anti-Semitism. The French entertainer Dieudonne M’bala M’bala (whose first name means “Gift of God”) is the son of a black immigrant from Cameroon and a white Frenchwoman. Born and raised in a Parisian suburb, he has in recent years become one of the loudest and most prominent espousers of Jew-hatred in France.
He initially made a name for himself as part of the stage duo Elie and Dieudonne; his partner was Elie Semoun, a talented Jewish actor who was his friend at the time. But after they split up, Dieudonne became very involved with the fringes of French politics and even set up his own “anti-Zionist” party in order to spread his loathsome views under the cover of “political opinion,” running (unsuccessfully) for the European Parliament.
The French courts have repeatedly convicted Dieudonne for hate speech both onstage and off, giving him fines and suspended sentences. He was thrown out of the Parisian theater where he had performed for years. Theaters in both France and Belgium – where his principal audience resides – have refused to host him over the past few years, basing their decision on various orders defining his one-man show as a threat to public sensibilities.
For anyone curious as to what kind of “jokes” he tells, here’s an example for which he was convicted of anti-Semitic insults last year against a Jew – Patrick Cohen, a reporter for France 5 television and France Inter radio.
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“When I hear him speak,” Dieudonne said of Cohen in his show, “I say to myself, you see, the gas chambers ... too bad.” Later in the act, he added, “I can’t take a stand on the Nazis and the Jews; I wasn’t born then. I don’t know who annoyed whom, who robbed whom ... but I can guess.”
Currently, Dieudonne has a non-trivial number of fans but no place to perform for them. His solution, evidently, is deception, like that to which the Chateau de Vaugrenier fell victim.
To keep it as secret as possible, news of the performance spread by word of mouth and on social media. Code words were used, and the venue was announced only at the last minute. Yet hundreds of people came, bought tickets and laughed with Dieudonne.
The chateau’s owner didn’t laugh. As soon as she found out what was happening in her family home, le Lédan called the police. But they arrived only at the end of the event and reported that some 300 people were present. She says there were originally at least 600.
She promised to take out her anger at Dieudonne and his agents in court. She has already filed suit against him and his impresario (a company that calls itself Esprit de la Forêt, at least according to the contract it signed with her) for damaging the reputation of her chateau, which has been recognized as a historic site by the French Culture Ministry. Included in the lawsuit is the damage to her newly installed automatic irrigation system from audience members parking on the grass, in violation of the contract.
In an interview with the radio station France Bleu Azur, the countess’ daughter said, “They also left a large amount of trash at the site, cigarette butts and food wrappings. The 2,000 euros they paid for the site and the 1,500 euro guarantee are far from covering the damage.”
But what bothered her most of all, she added, was that “by the very fact of his performing at the chateau, he gave it a bad image.”