January 2014 will be remembered as an ominous turning point in French politics: the moment when explicit anti-Semitism was accepted again as a legitimate political view by at least a segment of the public.
First, there was the Dieudonné case. Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, 48, known as an artist as just Dieudonné, is an African-French former humorist who over the years has turned his shows into anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish gatherings. More recently he created and launched the “quenelle,” an inverted Hitlerian salute (one arm down, the other one touching the shoulder) to be used as an expression of contempt for Jews and everything related to the Holocaust.
As Dieudonné was about to start a grand tour of France in January, Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls issued orders and guidelines to préfets (local government commissioners) and mayors to ban his shows as public-safety risks. Moreover, the police raided Dieudonné’s home in Paris and found close to one million dollars in cash. Since Dieudonné and his wife and producer Noemie Montagne have repeatedly maintained they are nearly bankrupt, they may be investigated for tax evasion or money laundering.
While many citizens congratulated Valls for acting decisively against a dangerous agitator, many others — including in his own socialist and left-wing constituency — criticized him for “curbing free speech and expression” in line with his own “politically correct” agenda.
Valls, the most popular politician in the country and the most popular minister in François Hollande’s socialist administration, suffered instantly according to two polls released by mid-January: he fell from a 38% overall positive rating to 31% according to YouGov France; and from 59% to 53% according to the differently calculated Ipsos/Le Point survey.
Even more revealing and disturbing: only 38% of the French approved of the ban, while 32% opposed it, and 64% said that Dieudonné and Valls were in fact “comforting each other.”
Then, on January 26, there was Jour de Colère (Day of Anger), a rally against the François Hollande administration that attracted at least 20,000 people and possibly twice as many. Some of the demonstrators — clearly supporters of Dieudonné — repeatedly shouted anti-Semitic slogans: “Jew, France does not belong to you”; “the Holocaust is just a hoax.”
The other demonstrators did not seem to be greatly disturbed by the chanting, nor did the rally’s organizers bother to call the rogues to order, as Ivan Rioufol, a conservative commentator, observed the next day in Le Figaro.
In fact, Islamic militant groups have repeatedly voiced similar and even worse slogans for years during street demonstrations. The difference: they were doing it in Arabic, not in French, and thus were largely unnoticed by the media, if not the police. Unaware, people debating the issue of a resurgent anti-Semitism would resort in good faith to the reassuring remark that “after all, Nazis were not marching in Paris.”
Since the Jour de Colère rally, even die-hard optimists must recognize that this is no longer true. Nazis are marching in Paris, unchecked.