Dieudonné is a shapeshifter. He started his career in 1990 as one half of a double act with the Jewish comedian Elie Semoun, lampooning intolerance and bigotry of all kinds. No one was safe from their remorseless satire — scientologists, intellectuals, journalists and neo-Nazis were all fodder for their irreverent and hugely popular shows.
But since the two split in 1997, Dieudonné has become known for his increasingly frenzied antisemitism.
Once a poster boy for the anti-racist, liberal left, he is today more associated with far-right nationalists. Former leader of the French National Front Jean-Marie le Pen is godfather to his six-year-old, daughter Plume.
In 2009 the comic founded the Anti Zionist Party, standing for the European parliament alongside former National Front activist Alain Soral. (Having won only 36,398 votes — 1.3 per cent — they lost their deposit.)
In 2012, he directed his first film, L’Antisémite, which failed to find a distributor in France or abroad.
After a showing of L’Antisémite at the Cannes Film Festival was cancelled, the New York Times claimed that “he struggles to sell tickets to his stand-up appearances”. It is certainly true that as his views have become more extreme, the “bobos”, or bourgeois bohemians — white, comfortably off, educated professionals — who used to fill the audience for his packed out shows, have fallen away.
But Dieudonné is no pariah. In March 2013, he tweeted a selfie with Yannick Noah performing the now infamous quenelle backstage after a performance of his smash-hit, one-man show, Foxtrot, which played to packed houses all over France in 2013. At the end of each show, Dieudonné led the audience in a singalong of “Shoananas” (a hybrid of Shoah and ananas, French for pineapple. Don’t ask).
Three months ago, basketball star Tony Parker was photographed alongside Dieudonné doing the quenelle. The gesture, which Dieudonné’s wife, Noémie Montagne, actually trademarked in December 2013, is, for those who missed Anelka performing it, a combination of a lowered Nazi salute and a bras d’honneur, the French equivalent of sticking up two fingers. Its oddity is precisely its ambiguity, and it is possible that there are some fans and celebrity friends who have been photographed doing it who are not entirely aware of what it “means”. But there’s no doubt that the comic knows precisely what he means.
The more hysterical the establishment gets — Interior Minister Manuel Valls has now declared that he is contemplating banning Dieudonné’s live performances — the more they play into the hands of the man who is making antisemitism cool again.