Why we unite against anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné - but don't want to ban him

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The French interior minister Manuel Valls has sent out tough new instructions to regional prefects encouraging them to ban shows in the imminent nation-wide tour by controversial comedian Dieudonné who stands accused of virulent anti-Semitism. The French president François Hollande has joined the debate, urging the prefects to be 'vigilant and inflexible' in the way they treat the comic. Some have now banned shows in their areas. Mediapart has been warning of Dieudonné's obsessive anti-Semitism for five years. But, as editor-in-chief Edwy Plenel here argues, banning the comedian's shows runs the risks of the socialist government falling into the age-old trap of democracies who undermine their own fundamental freedoms in the name of law and order. This politics of fear, he says, which uses the threat of chaos to undermine democracy, belongs to governments of the Right.

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A crime is imminent and we will not be accomplices to it. Yes a crime, in other words an attack on freedom. In a republic, at least in a genuinely democratic republic, freedom of expression is a fundamental right, just like the freedom of information. This means that one cannot censor one or other of these essential freedoms in advance. One has the right to hold people to account for what they say, for their opinions or their information. To pursue them in law, and to have them convicted in a court. But only after the event, without undermining the fundamental rights that are the strength and not the weakness of democracies: the right to speak and the right to know.

At the bidding of its interior minister Manuel Valls, a government of the Left - a socialist government in essence - is preparing to break this republican tradition for the first time since the Algerian War. In the long march towards freedom, in which a militant Left was often in the front ranks, it has been accepted for a century that the law could not ban a show in advance, whatever it may be. If it caused disorder, attacked people, insulted or defamed, the democratic response was not a ban by the authorities, in which the state set itself up as a guardian of morals and agreed ideas. Only the justice system, by judging the facts after they had occurred, openly, publicly, in an adversarial manner, and removing any suspicions of a witch hunt, could punish those offences.

Yet it is this very democratic heritage that the circular to regional prefects sent by interior minister Manuel Valls on January 6th calls into question. (download a copy here in French). The 'shows by M Dieudonné M'Bala M'Bala' are just the pretext. Yes, the pretext. For the criminal nature of Dieudonné's shows, the shows of a militant anti-racist who became an anti-Semitic propagandist, is nothing new. At Mediapart we were exercised by it at the end of 2008 after Dieudonné had invited onto the Zénith centre stage the Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson to award him the “Prize for Insolence”, in a clearly anti-Semitic setting where he openly accepted the broadcasting of a criminal ideology. Five years later Manuel Valls claims to have discovered the iniquitous and abject nature of Dieudonné, to the point where he has now turned public order into the number one issue, far ahead of the economic, social, and urban hardship that undermines and divides the country.

The Valls circular to prefects twice uses the adjective “exceptional” to describe what it wants to legitimise: an intervention by the administrative authorities, by the state, its prefects and its police, to ban Dieudonné's alleged shows, which have in fact become anti-Semitic rallies. This wording is no accident, for this is about introducing a State of Exception in the name of an albeit legitimate fight against racism and anti-Semitism. But this is where the trap lies for all democracies and republics, this path where freedom gets lost in the banning of all that it considers to be its enemies, the enemies of freedom. It gets lost permanently because tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, others will come along announcing their own criteria for what is an appropriate freedom and, at a stroke, will feel free and unhindered to ban whatever annoys or displeases them.

Only the law and thus a judge, through case law, proceedings, appeals, adversarial debate, procedural traditions, the French Constitution and European treaties can protect our freedom. To allow the state to take charge of that freedom in “exceptional” circumstances is to open the door to arbitrary power. “When a democracy is attacked to its foundations it shows itself to be strong by applying its principles. It is weak if, faced with extremism, it abdicates from them.” Those are the first two lines of a wonderfully lucid press release from the human rights organisation the Ligue des droits de l’homme. Since January 6th it has criticised the course taken by the minister of the interior, with “its bans based on uncertain law with their uncertain or even counterproductive political outcome”.

The Ligue des droits de l’homme speaks from experience. It was born out of the fight for justice in the Dreyfus Affair in the late 19th and early 20th century, a fight against French anti-Semitism. At that time, too, it rejected bans, the so-called 'lois scélérates' or 'villainous laws' by which the fledgling Third Republic thought it could defend itself against anarchist attacks by infringing the freedom of expression of anarchist intellectuals, their ideas and propaganda. One of the young legal experts who articulated the legal argument rejecting this trap – the trap in which democracy claims to be defending itself by denying itself - was none other than Léon Blum. At the time he was a senior master or legal expert for the state's highest administrative court the Conseil d’État; later he became the architect and president of the council of the Popular Front.

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