French President François Hollande on Tuesday backed efforts to bar controversial comic Dieudonné M’bala M’bala — known as just Dieudonné — from performing a one-man show that has been widely condemned as anti-Semitic.
Hollande urged local officials to take a hard line in applying an Interior Ministry memo that authorizes mayors and city police to cancel Dieudonné performances on public-order grounds.
"The government ... has issued instructions to ensure that no one can use a performance for the goals of provocation and the promotion of overtly anti-Semitic theories," Hollande said in a speech to government workers.
The socialist leader said local officials had to be "vigilant and inflexible" in their response to what he described as "shameful provocation," without specifically mentioning Dieudonné.
The cities of Bordeaux, Nantes and Tours have announced they will not allow the comic to perform in their theaters. But their moves are expected to face legal challenges on freedom-of-speech grounds before the scheduled start of his tour in Nantes on Thursday.
Although Dieudonné has been performing material deemed anti-Semitic for years and has been convicted repeatedly for hate speech, he has gained greater prominence in the last year as a result of the Internet-driven success of his trademark quenelle, an arm gesture some have described as a reverse Nazi salute.
The gesture won international attention last week after former French soccer player Nicolas Anelka celebrated an English Premier League goal with the salute. A photograph of French NBA star Tony Parker making the gesture also circulated online, leading to an apology from the San Antonio Spurs player.
Defenders of the comic say the gesture is simply code for "up yours," directed at the French establishment. That claim has been undermined, however, by the publication of pictures of Dieudonné fans performing quenelles outside synagogues, at a Holocaust museum and in front of a school in Toulouse where gunman Mohammed Merah killed a rabbi and three Jewish children in 2012.
Dieudonné's popularity — more than 5,000 tickets have been sold for the opening night of his tour — has exacerbated concern over a perceived resurgence of anti-Semitism in France.
Lawyers for Dieudonné, who has been fined for hate speech and who ran in the 2009 European elections at the head of an Anti-Zionist List alongside far-right activists, said they would take legal action to defend his right to free speech.
"Freedom of expression is not at the whim of governments or a comedian. It is what makes it possible to do what is hardest between humans — notably, to say what you feel to someone," they said in a written statement.
They accused the socialist government of using the issue to rally their voters ahead of municipal and European elections. Widespread anger over high unemployment is expected to fuel a strong vote for the far-right National Front.
Anti-Semitism seems to be on the rise in many European countries with struggling economies. In Hungary the far-right, openly anti-Semitic Jobbik party is gaining popularity. And in Greece many Jews have reported being threatened or attacked because of their religion.
Al Jazeera and wire services