Before last week, few people in the Anglosphere knew the name Dieudonné. A "mediocre" French comedian, according to The New Yorker, Dieudonné garnered attention for delivering anti-Semitic stand up routines and inventing the controversial quenelle gesture, an apparently inverted Nazi salute. But despite his controversial stances, the comedian remained in relative obscurity.
This all changed last week when several French cities began banning the comedian's shows, a move backed by French President Francois Hollande and the country's highest court.
Dieudonné's comments have ranged from tasteless to downright aggressive, though the comedian claims to be simply an anti-establishment rabble-rouser. In defense of his quenelle gesture, Dieudonné said, "It’s a gesture of the free man in front of the system of his jailers."
But is it more than that?
Dieudonné began his career, The New Yorker notes, as part of a comedic duo in which he and his Jewish counterpart exchanged racist jibes (Dieudonné's father was from Cameroon). But as a solo act, his apparent bigotry has become harder to digest, particularly when fans post pictures of themselves doing the quenelle in front of synagogues and Holocaust monuments.
While the claim can be made that Dieudonné should not be punished for the actions of his followers, in France, it is a crime to incite racial hatred as well as to deny the Holocaust, two acts Dieudonné has been accused of and tried for several times, though he has not been convicted.
The recent ban seems like an effective measure where legal action has failed—it sends a direct message to a performer whose livelihood depends on people buying tickets to his shows. But some argue the ban will have the opposite effect.
“Before this controversy, most French people didn’t know who this guy was," said French historian Giuseppe Di Bella. "I live in a working class neighborhood in Lille, and most people didn't know who he was...Now the young people in the neighborhood are starting to know who he is. But the only thing they know about him is that the government is trying to ban him."
And whether it means to or not, the ban in some way legitimizes Dieudonné as someone worth paying attention to. In the most ironic and effective way, Dieudonné gets exactly what he wants, and what's most important to a performer: Fame.