France is not amused by those who tempt limits of free speech

Humor reflects the cultural divide between supporters of Charlie Hebdo and those in the banlieues

French comedians Younes and Bambi in Paris. Bambi, left, is Jewish, and Younes is North African. Their popular act doesn’t shy from ethnic and religious themes, often using broad caricatures.
Foc Kan / WireImage / Getty Images

When the lights dim at the Comedy Club, a theater-cum-bar in central Paris, stand-up comedians Younes and Bambi rush onstage for their act, “The Arab and the Jew.” The comic duo portrays two young Frenchmen — one Muslim, the other Jewish — from the banlieues, the suburbs where poorer people and many immigrants live.

Predictably, it’s clichés galore. A rude Younes (aka Younes Arbouja) interrupts Bambi (Samuel Djian) bowing before an imaginary Western Wall. “You’re praying in the wrong direction,” he quips. “Wall Street is thataway.”

Bambi eventually pushes Younes away. “Your breath stinks!” he screeches. “Do you do Ramadan year round?”

While perpetuating stereotypes, the jokes underscore that France is made up of minorities, even visible ones — a term seldom heard in a country that prides itself on its rejection of multiculturalism.

But the Comedy Club fans are lapping it up, with many in the audience shouting “Oui!” when the performers ask if any Algerians, Moroccans or Tunisians are in the audience. For this crowd, these jokes are funny — and within the bounds of free speech.

But in France, not all wordplay is.

Franco-Cameroonian comedian and activist Dieudonné M’bala M’bala (usually referred to by his first name) is set to appear in a Paris criminal court on Feb. 4 on defense of terrorism charges for a Facebook post lampooning the ubiquitous “Je suis Charlie” slogan.

“I feel like Charlie … Coulibaly,” it read, suggesting that he identified with Ahmedy Coulibaly, the man who killed four Jewish hostages at a supermarket and a 27-year-old policewoman from Martinique before being shot dead by police.

A free speech paradox

Dieudonné, often accused of anti-Semitism, is a controversial character. He is already facing incitement to hatred charges in a separate case for insinuating that Patrick Cohen, a radio host, should have been sent to a gas chamber.

Are French humorists free to mock Islam, including its prophet, while others cannot legally crack a joke about the Holocaust? Short answer: yes.

Although Dieudonné’s name was never mentioned at the Comedy Club, this paradox was the subject of an exchange between Younes and Bambi.

Controversial French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. He was arrested Jan. 14, 2015, on defense of terrorism charges.
Patrick Kovarik / AFP / Getty Images

At one point, Younes complains that Jews facing anti-Semitism enjoy special protection under French law. It is only normal, counters Bambi, who says, his tone too self-righteous to be sincere, “There are [Jewish] associations. There are people who fought for that.”

Why shouldn’t Arabs, Younes asks, enjoy the same protection when they are subject to Islamophobia? “Arabs,” a sarcastic Bambi retorts, “fall under freedom of expression.”

Dieudonné’s case is not only a free speech issue. The government is keen to silence a comedian who has founded a far-right party, National Reconciliation, with Alain Soral, a man many people consider an anti-Semite (although he disputes the charge). He once invited Robert Faurisson, an academic found guilty of Holocaust denial, a criminal offense, to join him onstage.

Playwright Jean-Michel Ribes, the managing director of a well-regarded theater, the Rond-Point, describes himself as an advocate of free speech. “Humor knows no taboo,” he says. Yet he believes Dieudonné has gone too far.

“Dieudonné hasn’t been a comedian for the longest time,” he says with scorn. “He is engaged as a militant in absolute fascism.”

It’s unclear if Dieudonné will ever be convicted of defense of terrorism in a court of law. The prosecution would have to convince the judge that his Facebook post was paying tribute to Coulibaly and that this homage is a glorification of his crimes.

“Politically speaking, the government obviously wants to break his back and to see him swallow his words,” observes David Chilstein, a criminal law professor at the Sorbonne. “It may not be the right strategy because, legally speaking, a condemnation is far from obvious. The case is a bit borderline, even though Dieudonné’s intentions were clear.”

A cultural divide

His case nonetheless reflects the cultural divide between those who live in city centers and those who live on the outskirts, where Dieudonné was born and where many of his fans hail from.

This gap between haves and have-nots runs through humor as well as assets, according to writer Dalibor Frioux. The more elitist “humor of the literati” (including Charlie Hebdo) is difficult to comprehend for the less privileged, who subscribe to a form of “gallows humor,” he argued in a recent op-ed piece in Libération, a left-leaning daily newspaper.

It may be dark, but this banlieue humor has become pervasive, thanks to trailblazers like Jamel Debbouze (best known as Jamel), Gad Elmaleh and comic duo Omar and Fred, now household names.

Keeping audiences in stitches, these gifted comedians have nonetheless chipped away at the notion that France — when it comes to ethnic minorities — is an all-inclusive republic.

They have given rise to countless copycat acts. Tickets for more than 1,480 such performances are on sale on a leading ticket site. But this new generation of clowns, jokes and buffoons is not as hilarious.

“In the ’90s, stand-up comedy in France highlighted stereotypes to better denounce them,” notes Nelly Quemener, a Sorbonne Nouvelle lecturer and the author of “The Power of Humor” (“Le pouvoir de l’humour”). “But as these comedy acts went mainstream, especially on TV, they become less politically charged.”

They also came under the influence of U.S.-style stand-up comedy, especially its snappy one-liners. Comedian and actor Jamel took this one step further with his Jamel Comedy Club, a television springboard for minority artists modeled on HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam,” which launched many African-American artists in the U.S.

No laughing matter

The jury is still out on how funny these comedians are. Philosopher and pundit Alain Finkielkraut finds the current trend “sinister.”

Ribes fears that some engage in little more than “sniggering.” But he believes that they remain socially and politically relevant. “Humor has a tendency to ridicule hatred,” he says. “It would be worse if comedians were to bury their heads in the sand and to write lines like ‘The maid dropped the iron on the cat. Ha-ha-ha!’” Escapist vaudeville long ago took a backseat to the more irreverent humor that has flourished since May 1968, the cultural revolution that gave rise to Hara-Kiri Hebdo, the magazine that spawned Charlie Hebdo.

Even in France, some have always found this type of humor offensive. Catholics still protest the use of religious symbols but rarely turn to the courts because blasphemy is not a crime in France (except in the eastern region of Alsace-Moselle).

Religion and politics are fair game in a country that cherishes freedom of speech, an “essential value,” as President François Hollande said in a recent public address.

He could have specified “to a point”: Freedom of speech in France stops at “incitement to hatred” (based on ethnicity, nationality, race or religion) and at “defense of terrorism,” a new crime defined by an anti-terrorism law adopted last November. Scores of people have already been arrested on defense of terrorism charges since the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

For people like Jamel, who popularity remains enormous, this is no laughing matter. He recently appeared on the main television network to state, “France is my mother, and you don’t touch my mother.” He added that as a Muslim, he didn’t find the prophet cartoons funny. But he warned, “You can’t insult, assault and kill just because you disagree.”

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