France's Socialist government on Thursday claimed a last-gasp victory in its battle to prevent a controversial stand-up comic from launching a nationwide tour with a show widely condemned as anti-Semitic.
Less than two hours before the comic, Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala, was due to take the stage in the western city of Nantes, France's highest administrative court, the Council of State, overturned a local judge's ruling that the show should be allowed to go ahead.
The decision was greeted with boos and jeers by hundreds of the comedian's fans who had assembled outside the Zenith theatre in anticipation of watching a performer the government has branded a "pedlar of hate" and who has been repeatedly convicted under anti-racism legislation.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who has led the campaign to deny the comedian, who goes by his first name Dieudonne, a platform in France, hailed the ruling as a victory for the country's fundamental values.
"We cannot tolerate hatred of others, racism, anti-Semitism or holocaust denial," Valls said. "That is not France and the highest (administrative) court in the land has said as much and has said it clearly. This is a victory for the Republic."
That viewed was echoed by the head of the European Jewish Congress who hailed the ruling as "a triumph for the values of democracy."
"To remove a platform for hate and a stage for racism is in the best interests of the state and its citizens," said Dr. Moshe Kantor in a statement
Lawyers for the government had argued that the fundamentally racist nature of the comedian's act meant it could not be afforded protection under France's constitutional provisions on freedom of speech.
But their arguments were rejected by Nantes judge Jean-Francois Molla in a ruling earlier in the day that would have made it very difficult for other cities to ban Dieudonne from performing in their theatres.
Molla said that a perceived risk to public order could not be used to "justify as radical a measure as banning the show".
But judge Bernard Stirn of the Council of State said in his decision, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, that "the reality and gravity of the risk of trouble to public order" was "established".
The Council of State's decision to uphold the ban on Dieudonne in Nantes leaves the rest of a tour which is scheduled to run until June in doubt, although planned dates in neighbouring Belgium and Switzerland are expected to go ahead in line with recent legal rulings in those countries.
The decision marks a landmark break with legal precedent in France, where previous attempts to ban Dieudonne from performing foundered against constitutional provisions on free speech which were famously articulated by the philosopher Voltaire's maxim: "I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
Dieudonne's lawyer, Jacques Verdier, said Thursday that a ban on his client's performances was ridiculous given that a film of Dieudonne's latest show, entitled The Wall, had already been posted online.
"You are seeking to ban a show that is already in the public domain," Verdier told the court in Nantes.
Preview performances of The Wall in Paris included a sketch in which the comedian mimed urinating against a wall. He then reveals that it was the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
He also directs volleys of abuse at prominent French Jewish performers, rounding off one rant about radio presenter Patrick Cohen with the observation: "Gas chambers ... a shame."
In court, Dieudonne's lawyer also rejected suggestions that the "quenelle" -- a stiff-arm gesture that has become his signature and helped fuel his fame -- had anti-Semitic overtones.
The comedian could not be held responsible for incidents in which some of his fans have been pictured doing the quenelle at Auschwitz or outside synagogues in France, the lawyer argued.
The quenelle, which involves holding the right arm straight while pointing it towards the ground and touching the right bicep with the left hand, has been described as a disguised Nazi salute.
Dieudonne's supporters argue that it is simply a light-hearted "up yours" gesture directed at France's establishment.
In Nantes Thursday night, hundreds of angry fans rallied near the theatre shouting "Valls resign!" and "Free speech!", watched over by police. But Dieudonne on his Facebook page called on them to disperse.
"They are looking for a physical confrontation so return to your homes singing the Marseillaise!", he wrote referring to the spirited French national anthem.
Dieudonne, now 47, started his career as part of a double act with a Jewish childhood friend, Elie Semoun.
But the pair have been estranged for years and the content of Dieudonne's act has since veered from satirising racism to celebrating and promoting it, his critics say.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]