Heard the one about the racist black comedian?
Dieudonné's one-man show is all the rage in Paris but his act is virulently anti-semitic, exploiting the anger that exploded among young Arabs and blacks in the suburbs last autumn. Now he is talking about running for the Presidency. John Lichfield meets the controversial comic.
Stand-up comedy, or "le one-man-show", is all the rage in Paris these days. (Riots are not the only show in town.) One of the most talented, and popular, French comedians of his generation, Dieudonné, is launching a new season at his cosy, scruffy little theatre, the Théatre de la Main-d'Or, near the Bastille.
When the curtain rises, he is greeted with roars and whoops by a packed, multi-racial audience, which is young, trendy, intellectual and left-wing. Many of them have come straight from the latest demonstration against the government's new jobs law for the young.
Much of Dieudonné's show - "Le Depot du Bilan" (The Bankruptcy) - is surreally funny. A bored bureaucrat from a government welfare agency for threatened animal species is interviewing a distraught rhinoceros. "Wouldn't you consider getting rid of that horn? Horns don't go down so well these days. You have to adapt to survive..." Eventually, the rhinoceros falls through the floor.
All through the show, however, something else intrudes, something darker and more sinister. Dieudonné is obsessed with Jews. All races, even his own mixed black and white origins, get a gentle mickey-taking in his show. When Jews are mentioned - and they are mentioned over and over again - the tone becomes more aggressive, even violent.
In one skit, Bernard-Henri Lévy, the Jewish-French philosopher, haggles with a street potato seller. Dieudonné/Lévy says: "How can you ask me to pay so much when six million of us died in the Holocaust?" Roars of delight from the audience. There is also a Hitler-in-his-bunker sketch which is moderately funny until the closing line: "You will see, in the future, people will come to realise that I, Adolf Hitler, was really a moderate."
Until a couple of years ago, Dieudonné - his full name is Dieudonné M'bala M'bala - was a kind of French Lenny Henry. His stand-up comedy was corrosive, satirical but fundamentally good humoured. And funny.
There was a social or political message in many of his skits but he bashed all ethnic groups and prejudices equally. He was an anti-racist, who believed in universal values. He was a black man who refused, as he said, "to dance the calypso with a banana stuck up my arse". He appeared in popular films, such as Asterix and Cleopatra.
Since 2002, and intensively since 2004, Dieudonné has become a kind of French Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam in the US. His critics (including former friends) say that he is no longer a comedian interested in politics but a politician, who uses comedy to further extremist political ambitions. Sometimes directly, sometimes by coded, or scarcely coded references, he presents the Jews as the main source of black misery; or he suggests that the obsession with the suffering of the Jews soaks up too much of the fund of guilt and shame that would be better spent on black people.
Earlier this month, he was found guilty of "incitement to racial hatred" by a French court for saying in a newspaper interview that his Jewish critics were "slave traders, who had converted to banking".
In recent days, he has been accused by a former friend, the leading Socialist (and Jewish) politician Julien Dray, of being partly to blame for the horrific torture and murder of a young Jewish man, Ilan Halimi, by a suburban gang last month.
Dieudonné, 40, of Cameroonian and Breton middle-class origins, has announced that he plans to run for the presidency next year. He says that he "sees himself" in the second round run-off, which is exceedingly unlikely. Nonetheless, he is not a figure to dismiss lightly.
An utterly unscientific, phone-in opinion poll was conducted recently by Skyrock, a French radio station popular with the urban and suburban young. The two politicians who scored the most votes were the veteran far-right xenophobe, Jean-Marie Le Pen (29 per cent), and Dieudonné (26 per cent).
Dieudonné brings together, and plays on, many of the most poisonous issues in French politics and society: the contempt of many young people for main-stream politics, seen again in the intensity of the mobilisation against the new labour contracts for the under-26s; the shattering of the French political consensus into tribal extremes of right and left; the racial and social exclusion and suppressed violence of the multi-racial suburbs (where he was himself born).
Most of all, however, Dieudonné has come to symbolise - and some say foment - the rise of a "new anti-Semitism" among Arab and black youths and on the "white" far left.
Race was not a direct issue in the suburban riots which shook France last autumn. The young, black, brown and some white kids who belong to suburban youth gangs are not racist among themselves. There is one huge exception, however. They have a gut hatred of the "feujs" (backward slang for juifs or Jews).
This anti-Semitism, often based on lurid fantasies of Jewish wealth and power, was not invented by Dieudonné. It began with the sympathy of young people of Arab origin for Palestinian kids throwing stones at Israeli troops.
Dieudonné stands accused, however, of making this new anti-Semitism of the French under classes - and increasingly of the French far left - more respectable and spreading it to French people of African or West Indian origin.
Mr Dray is the official spokesman of France's main opposition, Socialist party and a founder of SOS-Racisme (an organisation once supported by Dieudonné, now dismissed by him as a "Zionist" front). M. Dray said: "[Ilan Halimi's] murder must be seen against the background of the social climate in France. Dieudonné is not responsible for his death but he shares the blame for the rise in anti-Semitism [in the suburbs]."
Youssouf Fofana, the alleged leader of the kidnap gang which abducted, tortured and murdered M. Halimi (a mobile phone salesman from a modest background), explained his choice of victim to his fellow gang-members in starkly racial terms.
According to statements to police, he said: "The Jews are kings, because they eat up all the state's money, but I'm black and treated by the state like a slave." This is a garbled version of the "Jews rule-black suffer" message popularised in the suburbs by Dieudonné in the past two or three years.
Off-stage, or off his political soap-box, Dieudonné is a gentle, soft-spoken man. He was so loved by showbusiness friends - including his original double-act partner, the Jewish comedian, Elie Semoun - that they defended his initial lurches towards anti-Semitism. A comedian had the right to satirise even the most sacred of taboos, they said. As Dieudonné plunged further into politics, and outright Jew-baiting, his entertainment friends dropped him one by one.
In an interview with The Independent, the comedian-politician rejected suggestions that he was anti-Semitic. "I am anti-Zionist and I oppose the power of the Zionist lobby in France," he said. "France is meant to be a secular Republic which treats all races equally but the power of Zionism has perverted that.
"I remain as profoundly anti-racist as I ever was. It is the Jews, or Zionists, who have created racism by forming such an effective lobby for one ethnic group and for the state of Israel, which illegally occupies the land of another people.
"The Holocaust was a terrible, appalling thing but there has been other suffering in history and there is other suffering today in a world cursed by the power of money. The Zionists have perverted the values of the Republic so that only the suffering of the Jews is recognised officially, not, for instance, the suffering of blacks through the slave trade."
Dieudonné proceeds by the kind of nudge-nudge, coded provocation that has long been the stock in trade of the anti-Semitic far right in France. He had been prosecuted 17 times for inciting racial hatred, or denying the Holocaust, but had won every case before his recent condemnation.
If you put a few of his comments together, however, the Dieudonné message becomes pretty clear.
On Beur FM, a radio station directed at young people of North African origin, he said in March last year: "In my children's school books, I ripped out the pages on the Shoah. I will continue to do so as long as our pain is not recognised."
In December 2003, he appeared on a French chat and comedy show dressed as an Israeli West Bank colonist and ended his skit with a Nazi salute and shouted: "Israel-heil". In his statement announcing his intention to run for the presidency, he launched an attack on the French Jewish association CRIF (Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France). It was, he said, a "Zionist organisation of the extreme right that gathers all our leaders at the beginning of the year to share with them a roadmap or an agenda for the year ahead".
Even the anti-Semitic paranoia of Jean-Marie Le Pen does not go that far - in public, at least. But why? Why insist that it was Jews that ran the slave trade, when they did not? Leaving aside distaste for Israeli policy (which is shared by many people), why the obsession that Jews secretly run the world and that Jews deliberately soak up all the world's natural resources of pity?
Eric Marty, a professor of contemporary literature at Paris-VII university, links the Dieudonné phenomenon to the similar savage hatred of Jews among some American black radicals, which began in the 1960s. He says it is a question of transfer of anger from real causes of black suffering - white slave masters, white prejudice - to a rival victim "someone who is identified ... as more of a victim than yourself".
Politically, also, it is easier to goad young blacks or Arabs into hating Jews than into hating a white society whose symbols of success they crave.
Anne-Sophie Mercier, a TV journalist who published a book on Dieudonnné last year (La verité sur Dieudonné), which he tried to block, believes that the comedian's lurch into outright anti-Semitism in the past two years is part of a deliberate strategy.
If you really want to address the problems of young blacks, she suggests, there are plenty of topics to choose: the prejudice of employers; poor schools; broken families; drugs; the many self-defeating jealousies between different black communities in France. Jews, objectively, would not figure high on the list.
If, however, you want to leap-frog into a position of influence as a potential leader of all black people in France, especially young black people, you need a short cut. Stoking up anti-Semitism and presenting yourself as a victim, someone with the courage to speak out, offers a potential route.
"Dieudonné is no longer a comic," says Mme Mercier. "He is a politician. He is trying the unite the different black communities ... and to build something it always helps if you can persuade people to be against someone else."
A question remains open: "Is Dieudonné still a one-man show?" Or is he being used by others? Mme Mercier, in her book, tracks Dieudonné's connections and supporters to an eclectic range of extremist movements, from Islamists, to black radical separatists, to the French representative of Louis Farrakhan, to the shadowy figures on the French ultra-Left who promote the theory that the US attacked itself on 11 September, 2001.
However, she finds no conclusive evidence that Dieudonné is controlled or funded by any of these people.
Dieudonné himself rejected suggestions that he has become a politician or a tool for political forces. "First and foremost I am a performer, a comic," he said. "But I travel around France and around Africa and I see the great suffering caused by the power of money and ultra-capitalism, the wiping away of human values. As a human being, I cannot remain indifferent to that."
His former showbusiness friends suggest that, at some time in past three years, Dieudonné underwent a dramatic change. Some believe that he is just a naïve tool for others. Others says that Dieudonné is driven by himself alone and by a belief that he can become a kind of black political Messiah. Either way, they suggest, Dieudonné is "not funny any more".
The real danger may be, however, that Dieudonné is funny and very talented.