Earlier in his career as a comedian, Dieudonné appeared in a double act with his childhood friend, the Jewish comedian Elie Semoun. Their act lampooned intolerance and bigotry of all kinds, and propelled them to fame. Their shows were sell-outs and Dieudonné made enough money to buy a theatre in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. No one was excluded from their remorseless satire — scientologists, intellectuals, journalists and neo-Nazis were all fodder for their irreverent and hugely popular shows.
But in the decade since the two split, Dieudonné’s stage material has become increasingly vicious. He includes impersonations of Hitler (“The future will present me as a moderate!”) and has invited Robert Faurisson, the notorious Holocaust denier, on stage.
His theatre, the Theatre de la Main d’Or, has hosted political events with the wife of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the National Front. Kémi Séba, the head of Tribu Ka, an outlawed black supremacist organisation which organised threatening demonstrations in the heart of Jewish Paris after the murder of Ilan Halimi, has performed a one-man show there called Sarkophobie.
When Ilan Halimi was kidnapped and murdered in 2006, Julien Dray, the spokesman for France’s Socialist Party and founder of SOS Racism, called the murder a result of the “Dieudonné effect”, the creeping acceptance of the stereotype of the wealthy, inward-looking Jew that Dieudonné has increasingly made a part of his rhetoric.
Yet the comedian, who has acted opposite Emmanuelle Béart, who sponsored a proposal for a youth project in Dreux with Catherine Deneuve, and who in 2000 was designated an honorary Ambassador of Good Will in the Fight Against Racism by the United Nations, was once adored by the white Parisian elite. It is this that makes his participation in the forthcoming European elections undeniably frightening. His candidacy for the Anti-Zionist Party gives it a credibility that it otherwise would not have, as well as bringing the party the publicity it craves.
Dieudonné has a genuine talent for taking the pulse of the times, and although no one has been able to explain why he developed his antisemitic obsession, it is clear that it coincided with the rise of antisemitism in France and in Europe in general in the wake of the second intifada.
Pierre-André Taguieff, a French expert on racism, told the New Yorker in 2007: “I think our Dieudonné has quite a keen intuition for the movements of public opinion, and he immediately sought to instrumentalise this creeping antisemitism in public opinion by bringing it into his sketches, as a popular provocation.”
There are those who say that this time he has gone too far. His former fan base — the white liberal elite — is no longer behind this latest incarnation of demagogic antisemite. He is targeting a different demographic in these elections; though it is highly unlikely that his party will garner enough votes to win a seat in Strasbourg, it remains to be seen if he has enough supporters in the disenchanted suburbs that ring France’s big cities to bring him the votes he craves in Sunday’s elections.