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France turns anti-semitic, unfunny ‘comedian’ Dieudonné into free speech hero by arresting him

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Really, France? The country that prides itself on its liberté responds to an unfunny, hateful and stupid Facebook comment by arresting the idiot who posts it? The week after holding a march honoring free speech as well as those killed over exercising free speech? France does have a long tradition of conditional liberty. I think we all know the famous quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it, unless you post it on Facebook, in which case you deserve to be arrested.”  (This quote is really, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” It is misattributed to Voltaire but is actually a phrase used my Evelyn Beatrice Hall to describe Voltaire’s position.)

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On Wednesday, French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, who goes by his first name only, was arrested for being an “apologist for terrorism” over a post he wrote on Facebook on Monday: “Tonight, as far as I’m concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly,” mixing the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan in solidarity with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shooting with a reference to Amédy Coulibaly, the man who killed four people at a kosher supermarket last week.

Dieudonné wrote in a later post addressed to the French government, “When I speak … you look for a pretext to ban me. You consider me an Amédy Coulibaly, while I’m no different from Charlie.”

O.K. Let’s be as uncharitable as possible. Let’s assume that Dieudonné wasdoing no less than publicly identifying with Coulibaly. That he didn’t identify at all with Charlie and that he used Charlie as a rhetorical cover.  Even if this is the case, does he deserve to be arrested? Especially while France is trying to fight back against a brutal and murderous response to free speech (that some considered to be hate speech), does Diudonne’s arrest make sense?

To be clear, Dieudonné  is a reactive, anti-Semitic, not very funny, fairly hateful person. He’s done despicable things, like create a new and improved and less physically demanding Nazi salute. And while he used to critique racism, bigotry, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, with a Jewish comedy partner, no less, Dieudonné abruptly turned his schtick into an anti-semitic, crappy pseudo comedy of the oppressed, filled with lazy, contrived and unoriginal stereotypes, oversimplifications, and outright lies. As for his coherence and consistency, Dieudonné likes to hobnob and collaborate with with fellow anti-racist, anti-xenophobic, racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant politicians from the National Front party.

To be fair, France’s free speech laws are different from those of the United States. What Dieudonné did is not protected free speech according to French law, because, as Prime Minister Manuel Valls explained, “Racism, anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, and apology for terrorism are not opinions, these are offenses.”  But can’t some of Charlie Hebdo’s content be described as racist? And why is there no law against Islamophobia, or the equivalent of anti-Semitism against Muslims? Does anyone think that someone who identified with a person who had killed a policewoman and four Muslim hostages would be arrested?

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But let us, for argument’s sake at least, concede that the arrest is legally sound, principled and consistent. Surely this is a bad move strategically and tactically speaking. How could France not see that by arresting this comedian, they are transforming a politically incoherent, pretentious, opportunistic, unprincipled, attention-seeking pseudo free speech hero into a genuine, if unintentional, free speech hero? France’s response is exactly what Dieudonné thrives on and lives off. If France had not arrested the comedian, would the hashtag #JeSuisDieudonne be trending right now?

Does France really want to come out as saying, “terrorists kill people over free speech. We arrest people over speech we consider to be criminal because it is hate speech or an apology for terrorism?” Isn’t this a double standard? And won’t those who already feel alienated and marginalized see this as just another example of Western hypocrisy.

Of course, no nation should let itself be held hostage by fear. And France can’t compromise its principles and laws in the name of pacifying the fears and feelings of some of its people. But isn’t that exactly why it has to respect its commitment to free speech?

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