Following the heinous attacks on satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo and Paris kosher supermarket Hyper Casher last week that left 17 people dead, Afro-French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala—widely known in France by his first name—was arrested Wednesday after a controversial Facebook post led police to charge that he was an “apologist for terrorism.”
Dieudonné, who was among 54 people, including four minors, detained on similar charges, had written, “Tonight, as far as I’m concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.”
The post, which has since been deleted, was a play on Charlie Hebdo supporters’ rallying cry, “Je suis Charlie,” and the name of Amedy Coulibaly, an alleged accomplice of Charlie Hebdo shooters Cherif Kouachi and Said Kouachi. Coulibaly is accused of killing four hostages and a police officer during last week’s attack on Hyper Casher before being gunned down by police officers.
This is not Dieudonné’s first brush with notoriety. He’s been slammed in international headlines over the past year as being “cruel” and full of “hate.” Ironically, that charge has also been levied against him by the New Yorker, the magazine that infamously depicted President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama as fist-bumping Islamic terrorists burning the American flag in the Oval Office in a fireplace beneath a portrait of Osama bin Laden.
Dieudonné’s provocative Facebook post drew the ire of French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who was already familiar with Dieudonné because of the comedian’s prior conviction on charges of “public defamation” for comments deemed to be anti-Semitic, for which he was fined.
As backlash against the embattled comedian intensified, he posted an open letter to Cazeneuve, which reads in part as follows:
Since the beginning of last year, I have been treated as public enemy number one, when all I try to do is make people laugh, and laugh about death, because death laughs at us all, as Charlie knows now, unfortunately. … Whenever I speak, you do not try to understand what I’m trying to say, you do not want to listen to me. You are looking for a pretext to forbid me. You consider me like Amedy Coulibaly when I am not any different from Charlie.
International support for Dieudonné has been strong and swift, simultaneously serving as condemnation of France’s blatant double standard as it pertains to censorship. Within hours of the news breaking that the comedian had been arrested, the hashtag #JeSuisHypocrite began trending—and with good reason.
“We are in the land of freedom of expression?” Dieudonné’s attorney David de Stefano asked sarcastically after his client’s arrest. “This morning, the government provided the demonstration of that.”
What the government demonstrated is that the protection and privileging of whiteness and, to a slightly lesser degree, its Jewish community lies at the root of the backlash against Dieudonné; it isn’t really about the boundaries of free speech. If speech were really free, they’d pass it around more liberally instead of restricting it to the “Whites Only” table.
Charlie Hebdo has remained relatively unscathed in legal battles over the years, emerging victorious in 2007 from religion-defamation suits filed by the Paris Grand Mosque and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France. At the time, then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, later president, angered Muslims when he was quoted as saying that he “prefers an excess of caricature to an absence of caricature” and that France is a nation with the “liberty to laugh at everything.’’
Conversely, not only has Dieudonné been arrested and found guilty of hate speech and public insult, but his home was also raided by police last year, and his show was banned for being a “threat to public order.”
Apparently, France forgot to laugh.
In an interview with Business Insider, Basile Ader, a lawyer specializing in media law, suggests that there is nothing hypocritical about the repercussions that Dieudonné is facing. "Charlie Hebdo mocks religions, which is not banned in France as the offense of blasphemy; it is no longer in our legislation," Ader said.
In an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, France’s ambassador to the United States, Gerard Araud, also weighed in on the matter. “In France, the speech is free, but [not] if it could lead either to a crime or if it could be seen as libel,” said Araud. “But this is of course under the control of the judge. It’s for the judge to decide whether the red lines have been crossed."
Though Cazeneuve and several media outlets framed Dieudonné’s statement as sympathizing with Coulibaly, and he will stand trial because of it, those who understand how contemporary racial and religious persecution operates recognized it for what it was: an indictment of white supremacy, an exposure of hypocrisy, a rejection of cultural violence and a plea for those who unfairly target his very existence to acknowledge his humanity.
Well-executed satire is able to be all of those things. If Charlie Hebdo can depict the schoolgirls kidnapped from Chibok, Nigeria, as “welfare queens” and “sex slaves”—and French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira as a monkey—and still be hailed as martyrs, then certainly an Afro-French comedian should have the freedom to say that he’s treated like a terrorist in his own country.
The fact that he doesn’t have that freedom is, perhaps, the cruelest joke of all.