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Comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala and the ‘hierarchy of suffering’

The French comic exploits the victim position, rallying support among those who consider themselves oppressed by France’s social and political system including Muslims and citizens of African Descent, leading to an escalation of communities pitting themselves against each other in the fight for recognition and rights – writes Michael Privot

The French comic Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala has sparked controversy and heated debate in France, which has peaked during the last month. Dieudonné is known for his allegedly anti-Semitic jokes and comments, which led to several convictions for inciting racial hatred. In a video taken from his last show, he explicitly stated that he wished gas chambers were still a reality to get rid of a journalist who wanted him banned from television.

In another video, he implied that Jews were responsible for the Holocaust for having provoked the German people. These are just a few of the many insulting, borderline or some would say racist comments in Dieudonné’s shows. Another issue of concern is that the ‘quenelle’, his trademark hand gesture, has been used by some of his supporters in front of synagogues, Holocaust memorials and Jewish schools. This has led France’s Interior Minister Manuel Valls to call for local authorities to ban his shows on the grounds of public order threats, sparking protests over freedom of expression.

But current debates over Dieudonné himself and freedom of expression overshadow the uneasiness that the comedian’s remarks reveal about the wider French society – the hierarchy of suffering between communities leading to the stigmatisation of one group in particular to demand justice for other oppressed groups. In addition, the French government’s strong reaction, while continuing to stigmatise Roma and Muslim communities and ignoring Afrophobia, reveals disturbing double standards in the fight against racism. This has further fuelled tensions and divisions in French society.

Dieudonné consistently targets the Jewish community, which he blames for what he calls the ‘system in place’ – in a conspiracy theory manner. He pretends to defend certain oppressed groups in society, while allying with far-right politicians – including Jean-Marie Le Pen and revisionists such as Robert Faurisson. Building on the growing inequalities in France, the comic’s arguments remind of far-right ideologies having a tendency of blaming particular minorities for the woes of the majority.

He falls into the trap of practicing exactly what he supposedly condemns by using hate speech and constantly associating public figures with stereotypes linked to their ethnic or religious groups. Once again, the real roots of discrimination and inequalities are not being addressed or lessened. Dieudonné exploits the victim position, therefore rallying support among those who consider themselves oppressed by France’s social and political system including French Muslims or French people of African Descent. This leads to an escalation of communities pitting themselves against each other in the fight for recognition and rights, resulting in divisive feelings between communities.

This not only has obvious repercussions on community relations and social cohesion but more seriously it undermines the crucial fight against the exclusion, racism and discrimination faced by all ethnic and religious minorities. Indeed, real justice and equality for all the groups ‘invisible’ in the mainstream, who struggle to have their basic rights respected, can only be achieved through solidarity – when all groups join forces to advance racial equality and social justice.

Similarly, when Dieudonné pits Holocaust memory against the lack of remembrance of the slave trade, it is equally detrimental to the legitimate case for such remembrance. This ‘remembrance competition’ when it comes to deciding which dark chapters of history should be remembered again implies an abject hierarchy of memories and suffering. Instead, states should support on an equal basis all claims for remembrance and all collective memories including the slave trade and the Roma genocide during World War II, because they each are crucial stepping-stones toward the recognition of contemporary forms of racism against all the different groups affected.

The division that resulted from the Dieudonné case is certainly not the path to an efficient fight against racism. Setting groups against one another has never been and will never be a solution to racism. Similarly, current established double standards in governmental responses to inequalities, racism and discrimination only reinforce feelings of injustice among certain groups – and hinder the fight for real equality – to the best interests of the ruling class. Instead, the fight against all forms of racism should be led across ethnic and religious lines, both by governments and civil society in order to end exclusion and protect basic human rights for all ethnic and religious communities. Only in this way will we achieve an inclusive and equal society in which solidarity takes on a real meaning.

Michael Privot is director of the European Network Against Racism campaign group

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