France: a petri dish for viral hate

By Shirli Sitbon, January 2, 2014
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Dieudonné (Photo: Getty Images)

Dieudonné (Photo: Getty Images)

There are plenty of antisemites in France, just as there are in many other countries. The question that should trouble us now is how a man like Dieudonné has managed to position himself as their mouthpiece while maintaining his reputation as a man of the people, a figurehead for the victims of racism, a leader of the marginalised.

Part of the answer to that question can be captured in one word: the internet. Dieudonné is a master of online self-promotion and the catchy, viral video. Even though Jewish organisations have been suing him for ten years for his antisemitic remarks, over 410,000 people like his official Facebook page. More than two million people regularly watch the videos he posts on his site, dieudosphere.com.

Now, his trademark salute, the quenelle, or “dumpling”, has turned into a national hit. Thousands have performed it and posted the pictures online. Photos have appeared of people making the gesture outside synagogues, memorials and even inside Auschwitz.

Viral antisemitism has grown to such an extent in France that the country’s Union of Jewish Students went to court to force Twitter to hand over the details of those behind a wave of antisemitic messages posted on the social media site in October 2012.

France is also home to the traditionally antisemitic National Front, which could achieve 24 per cent of the vote in the European elections this year, according to a recent poll. The former leader of the National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was a close friend of Dieudonné.

Together with the National Front, Dieudonné has been able to position himself as the leader of the resistance against the “system”. His fans are mainly young people of foreign descent, often Muslims but also far-right activists. He attacks the government and banks and those who, he says, control it all: the Jews. Others do not necessarily agree with his views but his daring extravagance and cod-philosophical panache sits well with the psyche of the angry young Frenchman.

As a TV comedian, Dieudonné has been able to promote his bigotry to the widest audiences. For his first controversial TV sketch, broadcast in December 2003, he invented an Israeli Nazi character. He invited Holocaust-denying writer Robert Faurisson to be a guest star on his show, disguising him in clothes resembling those worn by Auschwitz prisoners.

Dieudonné’s high profile means he has often been able to set the media agenda. “Dieudonné is probably laughing now,” said one TV journalist. “He says something and we rush to report it and then we broadcast the condemnations, and go back and forth.”

Dieudonné accuses Jews and Jewish organisations of controlling France, and overplaying the Holocaust, calling it “memorial pornography”.

Ultimately, France pays for the kind of antisemitism promulgated by Dieudonné in blood. When Ilan Halimi was abducted, tortured and murdered in 2006, the gang leader that targeted him said he chose him because he was Jewish and Jews are rich. But Halimi was poor. It was the first known antisemitic attack carried out by black people in France.

And in March 2012, a French terrorist of North African descent, Mohamed Merah, killed Jewish children and a teacher in their school in Toulouse.

On Monday, a man posted a picture of himself making the “quenelle” salute at the exact spot where they were murdered.

Shirli Sitbon is a Paris-based journalist

Last updated: 10:16am, January 2 2014