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Controversial French Comedian Arrested Over Facebook Post On Paris Attacks

Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala, the French comedian better known as Dieudonne, has been arrested and held on charges of apologizing for terrorism in the wake of a Facebook post that referred to last week's deadly attacks in Paris.
Michel Euler
Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala, the French comedian better known as Dieudonne, has been arrested and held on charges of apologizing for terrorism in the wake of a Facebook post that referred to last week's deadly attacks in Paris.

Controversial French comedian Dieudonne has been arrested in the wake of the deadly attack on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and held on charges of apologizing for terrorism. He was one of 54 people held across France; none has been linked to the attacks.

Dieudonne's alleged crime: writing "Je suis Charlie Coulibaly" (I am Charlie Coulibaly) on his Facebook account.

It's an apparent reference to "Je suis Charlie," the message of solidarity that many people shared after the attack on the magazine that was targeted by Islamist extremists for its cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Coulibaly is the last name of Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who killed four people at a kosher market in Paris last week.

Reporter Eleanor Beardsley tells our Newscast unit:

"It's not the first time Dieudonne M'bala M'bala, who goes by the stage name Dieudonne, has been in trouble with French authorities. He has been fined for hate speech in the past, and in 2013 the French government tried to shut down his shows. Many believe Dieudonne's views and comedy skits are anti-Semitic and incite hatred. Dieudonne claims he is not anti-Semitic but anti-Zionist. He says he makes fun of everyone in his skits, but that Jews think they have the monopoly on suffering and are given special treatment in France."

Dieudonne's Facebook post has since been deleted, but in a separate post he wrote an open letter to France's interior minister: "Whenever I speak, you do not try to understand what I'm trying to say, you do not want to listen to me. You are looking for a pretext to forbid me. You consider me like Amedy Coulibaly when I am not any different from Charlie," he wrote. A translation was provided by The Associated Press. His Facebook page now bears this message: "Je Suis Dieudo: Liberté D'Expression."

As we have previously reported, Dieudonne's trademark gesture is a straight-arm salute known as a "quenelle." Critics say it's a reverse Nazi salute, but he denies that, insisting that it is anti-Zionist and anti-establishment. Last year, the French government banned his show, calling it a threat to public order. (Beardsley reported on the controversy at the time.)

France's Justice Ministry said the 54 people arrested Wednesday included four minors; several had already been convicted under special measures. Inciting terrorism is a crime with a five-year prison term in France; inciting terrorism online can lead to seven years in prison. The AP adds:

"In its message to prosecutors and judges, the ministry said it was issuing the order to protect freedom of expression from comments that could incite violence or hatred. It said no one should be allowed to use their religion to justify hate speech."

"We have all heard 'Yes, I support Charlie,' but the double standards, the 'Why defend liberty of expression here and not there?' " Education Minister Najat Vallaud Belkacem said, according to the AP. "These questions are intolerable above all when we hear them at school, which has the duty to teach our values."

Update at 6:51 p.m. ET: French Ambassador Discusses Speech Laws

Dieudonne's arrest came up in an interview with France's Ambassador to the United States Gerard Araud on today's All Things Considered.

Here's what Araud said when he was asked about free-speech distinctions in France:

"That's a debate that we have had with our American friends for some time, because of your First Amendment.

"For a long time, for instance, we have a debate on the Internet, because you accept on the Internet that you could have hate speech ... while it's forbidden in France.

"In France, the speech is free, but [not] if it could lead either to a crime, or if it could be seen as libel. But this is of course under the control of the judge. It's for the judge to decide whether the red lines have been crossed."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.