Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala
Accusations of anti-semitism are now thrown around so carelessly that I confess my antennae quivered when The New Yorker arrived this week, the cover flap declaring a new anti-semitic phenomenon: “Hate comedy.”
The target of the piece by Tom Reiss, styled as a “letter from Paris,” is the French comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala. Dieudonné is, without doubt, notorious as a comedian who has consistently ignored boundaries and been careless in his associations. But Reiss seems pretty careless, too.
Reiss declares Dieudonné to be a “committed and vocal anti-semite” and guilty of “sheer malevolence.” But the piece is itself pretty demagogic and the evidence presented is tendentious and malevolent.
The first question must be: just what does Reiss mean by anti-semitism? Racial anti-semitism? It is doubtful this charge can be made to stick. Anti-zionism? A refusal to excuse Israel’s behaviour by reference to past Jewish victimhood? This seems closer to what appears to concern Reiss.
Reiss considers the beginning of the Dieudonné affair the appearance by the comedian in December 2003 on the TV program On ne peut pas plaire à tout le monde which Reiss describes as a popular political chat show “in which celebrities discussed issues in a civil round-table atmosphere” (suggesting to me that Reiss has never watched it, as the show was typically a riotous affair).
Even by the standards of this often wild programme, the episode in question was a classic. Dieudonné performed a sketch in which he denounced the American-Zionist axis before raising his arm and proclaiming, “Isra-heil.” This is transgressive. Insulting. But anti-semitic? Dieudonné was in character, for heaven’s sake. You can watch this clip here on YouTube.
There is no doubt that Dieudonné loathes Zionism and that he does so on republican principles. He opposes what the French call communautarisme which elevates the rights and claims of minorites above the republican notion of equality. And he loathes the professional witch-hunters who equate any mockery of Zionism or Israel with anti-semitism.
Reiss does not consider this, nor the consequences. Instead, he implies that Dieudonné is either personally responsible for or has inspired “a wave of attacks” against Jews and their property.
Reiss approvingly quotes Sammy Ghozlan, head of the Bureau national de vigilance contre l’antisemitisme, who says Dieudonné “influenced” the killers of Ilan Halimi, a Jewish mobile phone salesman notoriously murdered in Paris last year. But there is not a shred of evidence adduced to support this. Dieudonné is unknown to have attacked anyone, or to have advocated violence – although he has himself been physically attacked by Jewish militants.
Reiss goes on to lengthily quote two more of the least convincing witnesses imaginable: Alan Finkielkraut, a notorious reactionary not averse to hurling racially-tinged insults himself, and the ridiculous Bernard-Henri Lévy, who seems to have entertained Reiss in his lavish apartment on the left bank.
Dieudonné unsettles. He is a confrontational comedian. One of his targets – among very many – is the siren of Jewish victimhood being used to suppress criticism of injustice perpetrated by Jews on others. Dieudonné is not an intellectual nor does he claim to be a profound thinker. He’s a brilliant comic who consistently and bravely attacks the powerful and pompous.
Reiss quotes him highly selectively. “Judaism is a scam. It’s one of the worst because it’s the first,'” Reiss quotes Dieudonné. This is what Dieudonné actually said:
« Le racisme a été inventé par Abraham. Le “peuple élu”, c’est le début du racisme. Les musulmans aujourd’hui renvoient la réponse du berger à la bergère. Juifs et musulmans pour moi, ça n’existe pas. Donc antisémite n’existe pas, parce que juif n’existe pas. Ce sont deux notions aussi stupides l’une que l’autre. Personne n’est juif ou alors tout le monde. Je ne comprends rien à cette histoire. Pour moi, les juifs, c’est une secte, une escroquerie. C’est une des plus graves parce que c’est la première. Certains musulmans prennent la même voie en ranimant des concepts comme la guerre sainte… ».
Maybe this isn’t deeply insightful, but it is rather more sophisticated than the scrap Reiss has fed us, isn’t it? Dieudonné is criticising not just Jewish exceptionalism, but also Muslim exceptionalism. It seems less specifically anti-semitic than anti-clerical (a fine French tradition).
Dieudonné disturbs because he refuses to exempt anyone from his contempt. Malevolent? Certainly. So was Lenny Bruce. Angry? A lot of people are angry with Israel, which continues to confound its critics by behaving ever more dreadfully than can be imagined. There are dozens of videos by Dieudonné on YouTube. It’s pretty clear watching half a dozen at random that he has contempt for more or less everything sacred. Branding him an anti-semite, on the evidence presented by Tom Reiss, is not just pretty vacuous. It aligns The New Yorker with the camp of Zionist zealots who are trying to shut down anyone who dares criticise them.
Why can’t the English be more like the French? Image of Mme Bernard-Henri Lévi chosen by The Sunday Times to illustrate this enigma.
One must admit the brilliance of Sarah Long’s “translation” of Hortense de Monplaisir’s snooty verdict on The English in Le Dossier: How to Survive the English, published by John Murray at £12.99. Sarah Long is a novelist and “met” Hortense at a wine tasting.
In amongst the many genial passages – the book was filleted in yesterday’s Sunday Times - she describes Hortense like this:
Hortense de Monplaisir is from a very old French family who did not need to buy their particule. After studying at Sciences Po, one of the grandes écoles, or top universities, she married a grosse légume in banking and has made a career embellishing his grey world with her vivacious conversation and colourful table displays.
Thanks to her expatriation, her children are bilingual and au fait with binge drinking culture, while preferring to sip Orangina and dance le rock taught by a maître danseur from Paris. She and her husband live in London, but have homes in Paris’s Left Bank and in the Luberon, as well as one-tenth of the family manoir in Brittany.
An incisive observer of the English, she remains French through and through. Her interests include le scrapbooking, painting on porcelain and organising holidays in Verbier, St Barts and the Ile de Ré.
She has an exceptional IQ and is a member of French Mensa.
I think this would be a rival for the best book about France this year except that Graham Robb has already crossed the finishing line. And with the complication that it is not a book about France, precisely. Many of the 115 people commenting on the Sunday Times web site seem to think this is a book about England written by a French woman. And that it is most offensive, to boot. When of course it is also simultaneously the exact opposite – a book about the French, written by a rosbif. Plus also a book about the English by someone pretending to be French. Un engrenage! This is a very good joke. Made even better in the comment sphere, as the “author” is condemned for chauvinism!
Hortense might very well see Sarah Long to a manoir of her own. Ms Long has produced a witty, wicked and twisted parody that is very funny. If nothing else, it is the “translation” of the year.
Zoé’s Ark drops the Elysée in the deepest of African fiascos. French nationals are being held in Chad where they are threatened with 20 years in jail for allegedly kidnapping children from Darfur.
Chad’s president, Idriss Déby, has played a blinder with the rhetoric. He says the French may even have planned to kill the children and harvest their organs. Sixteen Europeans including nine French citizens are now being held in the affair. And this, as a seemingly deranged Sarko is on his way to Washington for what was to have been a triumphant reunion with his friend George Bush.
By any standards Déby, a French-educated kleptocrat, election-rigger and warlord whose controversial son was recently mysteriously killed in Paris, has pulled off a magnificent coup de théâtre, not so much striking a blow against the snooty French, but grabbing Sarkozy by the nuts and squeezing.
In addition to the pretty French nursemaids and their helpers he holds three journalists and seven Spanish air crew. And a Boeing 757. So kerching! It’s pay day for Déby. Sarko, meanwhile, looks deranged and not at all the man in charge of even his own emotions after storming out of an interview with 60 Minutes, after he was asked about, er, Her.
He unwisely staged his tantrum in the presence of Lesley Stahl, one of the grandest dames of American TV news. Asking about Cecilia may have been impertinent but it was certainly predictable. So why was Sarko not prepared? He had already called his press secretary an “imbecile” for having wasted his time by scheduling the interview on a busy day. Such self-revelation is not the calm, collected, controlled behaviour of a statesman. Not even if Sarko is right and it is true that the American media are utterly debased in their obsession with sex and celebrity over substance.
As if this was not bad enough, now Sarko is being made to look like a goat by an African thug who is never off French television without poisonous declamations in immaculate French. So much for the brotherhood of Francophonie.
One can imagine Sarko’s mood on the Presidential Airbus on his way to Andrews AFB. Whether this is just an affair of an inept NGO, as Sarko might wish us to believe he believes, it has turned into an affair of hostage-taking. The French public will not tolerate their girls being thrown into a malarial African prison. Sarkozy knows it. Chad knows it.
The children be damned; they are actually practically the least important consideration of all. Were the children from Darfur? How will anyone ever know? Were Zoés people offering these children a worse life? Most people in that part of Africa can only dream of going to France. Perhaps the paperwork was dodgy. I would prefer to cast my own sympathy with the NGO. They knew what they were doing was dangerous. But they may have underestimated the political cynicism of the regime in Chad, not to forget the political cynicism in Paris.
You do not need to be a Lacanian analyst to understand the political toxicity of this for Sarko. This is an affair ripe with symbolism.
What is Sarko going to have to pay to get the French team home? What does Chad want? Guns? Jets? Helicopter gunships? Prime real estate in Neuilly? Cash – obviously.
The swaggering performance of the Africans is an ironic tribute to Sarko’s own default posture but with the whip firmly in the hand of the Africans. This is a media nightmare for the French government. Chad has complete control of the media on their end, they will control the images, hence the French media, and can create any facts they want. This is a very big problem for Sarko, demanding a coolness that one must increasingly doubt he possesses.
Sarko needs to get a grip.
I am grateful to la petite anglaise for drawing to my attention this poster from the Paris Metro. Love-starved Parisians are being encouraged to flock to London to enjoy the aphrodisiac effects of a Great British Fry-up.
Gustave Doré : Les Animaux malades de la peste
I have been rude elsewhere to Charles Timoney who has written a reasonable book about French that is amusing even if spotty. “Pardon my French” is good at interpreting various phrases but not always so good at getting to the bottom of them. He annoyed me with his entry on the word ‘haro’ which suggests to me that researches were shallow. (Does he have a copy of Le Petit Robert?) The celebrated usage is that of Jean de La Fontaine.
The word is also used by Baudelaire: Il est bon de hausser la voix et de crier haro sur la bêtise contemporaine. This is in Curiosités esthetiques, Salon de 1859.
So do not rely on Charles Timoney in this instance. However my researches led me back to the fable which was first introduced to me, of course, by my French mistress.
This is all as it happens amazingly topical on our island cursed as it is with animal plagues, and so I reproduce it gleefully below. An English translation is available here – also one in Italian!
This really is a remarkable fable and I would like to believe it is still taught to all French school children. It conveys the important lesson that life is very sad. The punishment of the innocent baudet, whose only crime was to have eaten grass, speaks of the exquisite cruelty of justice. Once again I reach for Gustave Doré (above), one of many who have illustrated this story but who really does pathos better than anyone.
Les Animaux malades de la Peste
Jean De La Fontaine (1621-1695)
Un mal qui répand la terreur,
Mal que le ciel en sa fureur
Inventa pour punir les crimes de la terre,
La peste (puisqu’il faut l’appeler par son nom),
Capable d’enrichir en un jour l’Achéron,
Faisait aux animaux la guerre.
Ils ne mouraient pas tous, mais tous étaient frappés:
On n’en voyait point d’occupés
A chercher le soutien d’une mourante vie;
Nul mets n’excitait leur envie,
Ni loups ni renards n’épiaient
La douce et l’innocente proie;
Les tourterelles se fuyaient:
Plus d’amour, partant plus de joie.
Le lion tint conseil, et dit: «Mes chers amis,
Je crois que le Ciel a permis
Pour nos péchés cette infortune;
Que le plus coupable de nous
Se sacrifie aux traits du céleste courroux;
Peut-être il obtiendra la guérison commune.
L’histoire nous apprend qu’en de tels accidents
On fait de pareils dévouements
Ne nous flattons donc point, voyons sans indulgence
L’état de notre conscience
Pour moi, satisfaisant mes appétits gloutons,
J’ai dévoré force moutons.
Que m’avaient-ils fait? Nulle offense;
Même il m’est arrivé quelquefois de manger
Je me dévouerai donc, s’il le faut: mais je pense
Qu’il est bon que chacun s’accuse ainsi que moi:
Car on doit souhaiter, selon toute justice,
Que le plus coupable périsse.
– Sire, dit le renard, vous êtes trop bon roi;
Vos scrupules font voir trop de délicatesse.
Eh bien! manger moutons, canaille, sotte espèce.
Est-ce un péché? Non, non. Vous leur fîtes, Seigneur,
En les croquant, beaucoup d’honneur;
Et quant au berger, l’on peut dire
Qu’il était digne de tous maux,
Etant de ces gens-là qui sur les animaux
Se font un chimérique empire.»
Ainsi dit le renard; et flatteurs d’applaudir.
On n’osa trop approfondir
Du tigre, ni de l’ours, ni des autres puissances
Les moins pardonnables offenses:
Tous les gens querelleurs, jusqu’aux simples mâtins,
Au dire de chacun, étaient de petits saints.
L’âne vint à son tour, et dit: «J’ai souvenance
Qu’en un pré de moines passant,
La faim, l’occasion, l’herbe tendre, et, je pense,
Quelque diable aussi me poussant,
Je tondis de ce pré la largeur de ma langue.
Je n’en avais nul droit, puisqu’il faut parler
A ces mots on cria haro sur le baudet.
Un loup, quelque peu clerc, prouva par sa harangue
Qu’il fallait dévouer ce maudit animal,
Ce pelé, ce galeux, d’où venait tout le mal.
Sa peccadille fut jugée un cas pendable.
Manger l’herbe d’autrui! quel crime abominable!
Rien que la mort n’était capable
D’expier son forfait: on le lui fit bien voir.
Selon que vous serez puissant ou misérable,
Les jugements de cour vous rendront blanc ou noir.
The ‘haro’ of Baudelaire (much more forgettable) is here in full otherwise the pertinent bit is more of a complaint about market failure in the sale rooms:
Non, je ne suis pas injuste à ce point; mais il est bon de hausser la voix et de crier haro sur la bêtise contemporaine, quand, à la même époque où un ravissant tableau de Delacroix trouvait difficilement acheteur à mille francs, les figures imperceptibles de Meissonier se faisaient payer dix fois et vingt fois plus. Mais ces beaux temps sont passés; nous sommes tombés plus bas, et M. Meissonier, qui, malgré tous ses mérites, eut le malheur d’introduire et de populariser le goût du petit, est un véritable géant auprès des faiseurs de babioles actuels.
Graham Robb has written the season’s best book about France. It shreds the French mythology comprehensively, demonstrating that what we think of as the eternal France is nothing of the kind. More or less everything about France has been invented and much of it rather recently. France has been going through an identity crisis that began even before the turn of the century since exacerbated by the new mood post 9-11 and the disturbances in the banlieue of major French cities. The French had believed that their Republican model would integrate everyone and sneered at the multiculuralism practised in Britain, for example. But it has turned out that appeals to laïcité in France and celebrations of difference in Britain have both turned out to be not exactly comprehensively fit for purpose. One reason is that in neither Britain or France is it entirely clear what it means to be British, or French. Or English. Or Catalan. Robb reminds us that identity has much more local origins than this – certainly in France. This is not always a flattering portrait of the people who came to be the French. The women did much of the work. The agrarian tradition celebrated today is as mythical as the rest. Agronomists dispatched from Paris in the 19th century despaired at the peasantry’s refusal to cultivate the land, holding to their pastures and the animals who kept them warm. Only the invention of the internal combustion engine and the tractor persuaded French men to till the land – when they had machines to drive around in. Modern France may be an invented trope but it is real enough. Is Republicanism with its various contradictions ultimately a strong enough idea to unite all the fractious clans within? So far, it has not proved fully capable of the job. France is a nation united, perhaps, only by its hatred of tax collectors and officials. Meanwhile, if you want to wallow in a really profound France, read this book.