Maclean’s Interview: Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala

French comic Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala on why he called Jews slave traders and why he’s running for the European Parliament

Maclean's Interview: Dieudonné M’Bala M’BalaFrench comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala has entertained and exasperated his native country for nearly 20 years, most recently with his one-man shows that touch on race, religion and domestic violence, among other comedic taboos. In 2006, he fell out of favour with France’s media and political establishment, as well as many of his fans, when he declared his admiration of Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National party, going so far as making Le Pen godfather to his daughter. Along with running in the upcoming European parliamentary elections on an anti-Zionist platform, Dieudonné is performing five Montreal shows in June, where he remains extremely popular despite (or perhaps because of) the controversies surrounding him.

Q: You are well known in Quebec but not in English Canada. Please introduce yourself.

A: I’m French with African roots. I’m 43 years old. I have been a comedian and a humorist for the better part of 30 years. I have a particular comedic style that provokes a certain reaction from my contemporaries.

Q: This is the point? To elicit a reaction?

A: Yes, that’s my style. I love playing with geographic, religious and ethnic boundaries. It’s an interesting game for me. Here in Canada, you call it reasonable accommodation. Everything that divides people is interesting to me. I have a lot of fun with that.

Q: Tell me about your newest show, Sandrine.

A: Six years ago I did a show called Le divorce de Patrick, which was based on a friend of mine. I revisit Patrick six years on, and he’s married to Sandrine. I touch on the subject of conjugal violence.

Q: How do you find humour in this?

A: Human folly is rich territory for comedians. Conjugal violence is just the preamble to the story. The rest is about Sandrine.

Q: It’s quite a bit less political than your previous shows.

A: A bit less, but it’s a taboo, especially here in Quebec where it is a problem.

Q: Did you write it with Quebec in mind?

A: I come here quite often, so maybe. But the relationship between a man and a woman is universal.

Q: You are suddenly a lot less funny in France, ever since you allied yourself with Jean-Marie Le Pen. Why are you so popular in Quebec?

A: It’s all relative, really. I had a sold-out show in Paris last December with 5,000 people in the audience. I would say that I’m still as popular there, it’s just that I’m in conflict with certain political and media elites.

Q: But you are welcomed in Quebec with open arms.

A: Yes, yes. Quebecers are less affected by the controversies that surround me in France. I have a pretty big following here. The support of the media in Quebec is much more favourable. That’s what I find remarkable.

Q: The media is starting to turn on you.

A: Yes, a little bit. But that doesn’t matter because I don’t work for the media. I work for my public.

Q: A columnist for La Presse recently criticized Quebecers for tolerating, even celebrating, your shows here. He said that in France, criticism of your hateful words has had the effect of diminishing your popularity, whereas in Quebec you are totally accepted.

A: That in itself is a hateful view, and it shows a lack of respect for the Quebec public. He should at least respect that I have a right to say what I please. And anyway, he’s giving me publicity. Attention, buzz, it’s not positive or negative. It just is. I’ll take either. I’ll play the bad guy if that’s what they want.

Q: You were quoted as saying that Jews were slave traders who became bankers, and that the yearly commemoration of Auschwitz is “memorial pornography.” At the same time, you say you are anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic.

A: I don’t consider myself an anti-Semite. I am supported in my political aspirations by a large number of Jews, whose parents were victims of heinous atrocities during the war. Yes, I’m anti-Zionist. It is a political project that is on par with apartheid, and it must be resisted.

Q: But did you say that Jews were slave traders who became bankers?

A: I wasn’t addressing all Jews. I was addressing a bunch of Zionists who came into one of my shows in Lyon, and who were screaming that Israel will be victorious, death to Palestinians and that sort of thing, and they injured a 13-year-old girl who was at the show. That part wasn’t in the paper. These people were Zionists. And because I was talking about slavery during the show, I made the parallel with Zionism. I was quoted out of context, but if you look at the transatlantic slave trade, which was legal for 400 years, you see among the traders people who were bankers, people of all sorts of backgrounds, but especially Christians and Jews. To say otherwise is to lie.

Q: You’ve broken up and gotten back together many times with your long-time collaborator Elie Semoun, who is Jewish. What did he think of your thing with Jean-Marie Le Pen?

A: He is in business now, and politics are dangerous for people in business.

Q: One of the strange things is that his cousin, Patrick Bruel, successfully sued you for libel after you called him a liar and a member of the Israeli military on a Quebec television show. Have you paid him the $75,000?

A: It’s not finished, and we should let the wheels of justice roll on.

Q: A lot of attention has been paid to what you’ve said about Jews, but it’s worth mentioning that you also make fun of Muslims.

A: In my shows I go after any extremism in any form. The divided communities, and the borders that divide us all, are a game to me. I play with them, and they get outraged. But that’s a good example. The Muslim community has never been hostile toward me. It’s like they have a better sense of humour.

Q: Doing jokes like that in, say, Iran would be slightly more dangerous than in France.

A: Maybe, but we aren’t in Iran. We are ostensibly in a country where we can laugh and have fun. The problem is that France is a country that is under the thumb of the Zionist lobby, and because of this the reaction to my words wouldn’t be out of place in a religious state.

Q: People hear you say things like this and suggest you are promoting hatred.

A: I don’t want to promote hatred.

Q: Le Pen has said some awful things.

A: He’s been quoted as saying some things, yes. I’m actually running against him for the European Parliament.

Q: How does he rate as a godfather to your daughter, Plume?

A: Ah, you are talking about the promotion of my last show, Je fais l’con (I’m Playing the Idiot), where I used a promotional strategy that was based on provocation.

Q: To say the least.

A: It was a way to promote my show.

Q: But he is still godfather to your child?

A: You can’t ask a magician his tricks. What I can say is that it was a way to introduce my show, and in the first 10 minutes of that show I basically told the story of getting Le Pen to be my daughter’s godfather. I mean, the whole baptism thing was fantasy. I have a profound respect for Christ, but the Church? Do I think putting water over the head of a child does anything? That’s open to debate.

Q: Still, I’m not religious at all, but as godfather to my nephew I bring him toys and I call, and I wonder if Mr. Le Pen does the same.

A: I’m not sure. She’s only one. I think most people saw it for what it was: a very provocative humoristic performance.

Q: You are a virtuoso at marketing yourself.

A: You learn it.

Q: You say the whole thing with Le Pen was a joke, but it wasn’t perceived that way in the French media. Was that your intention?

A: You have to properly bait the media, otherwise you don’t get good buzz.

Q: I wonder if you are going to get Hugo Chávez to be another godfather to one of your children, just to piss more people off.

A: That would be less probable, I think, because I’m more in line with Chávez politically. It would be less shocking.

Q: The Wall Street Journal recently said you’ve gone from being a leftist extremist to the extreme right. I take it that your intention is to confuse everyone.

A: I don’t know if it’s to confuse. It’s more to start debates, to make people question themselves.

Q: In December you brought out Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson on stage and presented him with an award for “social unacceptableness and insolence,” given tohim by someone dressed up as an Auschwitz prisoner. Why on earth would you do that?

A: At that point I was preparing another show for which I needed explosive material. Le Pen was done, and I needed something even better. And the most untouchable was Faurisson. He is a person who denies history. So the award seemed appropriate.

Q: So you were playing a joke on Faurisson.

A: Yes. He denies the existence of the person who is giving him an award, and yet he’s getting the award. But I invited him because I’m very attached to the concept of freedom of expression. And again, I got the reaction I was looking for. There was a wave of indignation.

Q: So you are still playing the idiot, then.

A: Of course! It’s a living.

Q: So is it safe to say that your entrance into politics is an extension of your comedy?

A: Look, Sarkozy has shown that you can be an idiot and a politician at the same time, so why not me?

Q: Everything about your campaign is based on anti-Zionism.

A: The Zionist movement is extremely strong, and we need to challenge it.

Q: You seem to be a bit obsessed. What other than anti-Zionism is there in your platform?

A: It’s the hope that Europe positions itself beyond the American-NATO axis. Like Hugo Chávez, it’s a move toward the real left. It is a movement against colonization, for a better distribution of riches, which outlaws any sort of ethnic discrimination.

Q: The French authorities are trying to ban you from running. In doing so, you received more attention.

A: Yeah, the person who said I should be banned was Sarkozy’s spokesperson, Claude Guéant. He said it on a Jewish community radio station. I now call him my press attaché.

Q: It’s like another one of your shows.

A: I knew this would happen.

Q: I understand why they are mad at you, but why try to ban you from running? I think your ideas are malformed and idiotic, but I defend your right to run in an election.

A: There you go. I don’t think my thoughts are idiotic, but I accept that you don’t have to agree with me. I disagree with what Zionists are doing to France, I think it is a very hateful and narrow-minded movement, but I would never try to ban them. That would be giving them free publicity.