Labelling a public figure ‘controversial’ has become mainstream thinking – and inevitably the media’s – best way of classifying someone who has strayed from the dominant doxa. It is also a word so potent it can destroy a career. So when French-born footballer Nicolas Anelka performed what appeared to be an innocuous hand gesture after scoring his third goal for his UK team West Bromwich Albion against West Ham, Britain woke up to a media storm and the realisation that the sportsman had become ‘controversial.’

In addition to his newly acquired status, the 34-year old footballer was being associated with the even more ‘controversial’ French stand-up comic Dieudonne.

Until recently, largely unknown in the English speaking world, Dieudonne who was once upon a time and a long time ago, France’s most popular comedian, has become an international household name but for all the wrong reasons.

The Franco-Cameroon comedian, starred in French films, appeared on variety shows and was once the toast of the Parisian celebrity scene. His double act with Jewish comedian Eli Semmoun, meant his routine had defined the sophisticated, multi-racial nation France had become. As a deeply committed anti-racist campaigner, Dieudonne used his fame to promote anti-racist causes and denounce the role of the political elites in targeting minorities.

After his split from his comedy partner, his material became more politically inclined. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Dieudonne started mocking young Muslim men taken in and influenced by extremist Islamist ideology. As a North African with a keen interest in the continent’s affairs, he also mocked African despotic leaders and their worrying records in human rights. With France priding itself on being a beacon of freedom of expression, Dieudonne, riding high on a tide of fame, assumed his humour had no boundaries. In December 2003 appearing on a live talk show known for raising ‘delicate’ topics, Dieudonne would perform a sketch that would change the rest of his life.

He came on stage dressed in military fatigues, wearing an orthodox Jew’s hats and claiming to belong to the US-Israel axis of evil. At the end of the routine, the French audience gave him a standing ovation and other guests rallied to congratulate him. The following day however, Dieudonne woke up to find he had acquired the label ‘anti-Semite’, labelled by a once sympathetic media that had overnight turned deeply hostile. Asked to apologise, the now ‘controversial’ comedian refused, arguing that he had never been forced to apologise to the Muslims or black community, and had done nothing more than use the time honoured medium of humour to mock yet another form of extremism.

Over the following years, his shows were cancelled and several politicians joined an anti-Dieudonne campaign that continues to this day. The Mayor of Lille refused him access to local entertainment venues and the mainstream media shunned him. Forced to perform on the street outside his tour bus, he eventually raised sufficient funds to buy the lease on a theatre, which breathed new life into his almost defunct career.

With the rise of social networks and YouTube, Dieudonne’s material became widely available to millions, who were happy to see him back. While his fan base is hugely diverse, many come from France’s Muslim population of essentially North and sub-Saharan African origin. These fans say he rightly points to the double standards expressed by France’s ruling class and a sycophantic media, eager to defend the country’s much trumpeted freedom of expression when Muslims choose to complain, yet immediately electing to crucify anyone daring to mock Jews.

In 2005, Dieudonne performed a hand gesture similar to that which many from Mediterranean area describe as an ‘arm of honour’; a sort of two fingered salute that, in this case, was directed by the comedian towards the French system.

By 2009 this gesture, dubbed a ‘quenelle’ because of its resemblance to a French type of snack food by the same name, became his trademark and he began opening and closing all his shows with it.

The ‘quenelle’ became so popular in France young people took to taking snapshots across the world and in the presence of numerous celebrities or political figures, and posting the photographs either on the net or on Dieudonne’s Facebook page. Even interior minister Manuel Valls was caught on camera surrounded by youngsters performing it.

It was after the gesture had been performed by Dieudonne for over five years that the head of the Representative Council of Jewish Organisations in France, Roger Cukierman described it a ‘reverse Nazi salute’.

When Anelka celebrated his goal with a ‘quenelle’ the media machine stepped in to label both athlete and comic anti-Semitic and racist. Both denied the charges but the ‘controversial’ label remains, despite their vigorous protests. Cukierman later announced the ‘quenelle’ was not anti-Semitic and could only be considered such when performed in places sacred to Jews or Jewish memory such as outside a synagogue or at the gates of Aushwitz concentration camp. Dieudonne reacted angrily by promising to sue Cukierman for slander in regard to the damage his claim had personally caused the comic. As a result, Cukierman changed his mind and declared the next day that the gesture was in fact anti-Semitic!

This farcical episode in France’s increasingly farcical political life led to Manuel Valls appealing to the Council of State to have Dieudonne’s show outlawed. Britain also chimed in by banning Dieudonne from visiting the UK.

In retaliation, the comic who boasts an impressive following in the Maghreb and Algeria in particular, declared his outlawed show Le Mur will next be performed in Algiers and, he promises, a ‘spicier’ version of his irreverent show. Unlike its French counterpart, the Algerian media has come out in support of Dieudonne’s right to offend, given that it is not exclusive to any particular group or minority.

In a country currently enjoying impressive levels of freedom of expression – a book on the tumultuous life of President Bouteflika is out in a few weeks and promises to contain financial as well as sexual scandals aplenty – Algerians are eagerly awaiting the new show by Dieudonne – a comedian who has shaken Algeria’s former colonial power to its core and showed the blatant hypocrisy Paris frequently displays when criticising the nascent democracies of African and Middle Eastern countries.

In the 1960s and 70s Algiers was famously described as the Mecca of revolutionaries. Dieudonne’s commitment to taking on the entire French state apparatus while, at the same time, exposing its treatment of minorities and the way it plays them off against each other, has shown that spirit continues to exist and also means that the comedian already labelled ‘controversial’/’anti Semitic’ and ‘anti establishment’ will now add ‘revolutionary’ to his impressive list of sobriquets.

Hafsa Kara- Mustapha