PARIS – France's interior minister said Monday that local officials have the right to ban shows on a national tour of a comic whose performances are considered anti-Semitic.
Hours later, Bordeaux's mayor, former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, accepted the offer, making the wine capital the first French city to cancel a show by Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala ahead of the comic's tour.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls' decision to target Dieudonne was unusual because it touches on what might be viewed as free expression and because Dieudonne has performed for decades.
He is now well known for popularizing a hand gesture that's been used by sports stars such as Nicolas Anelka. Valls has criticized the "quenelle" gesture as an "inverted Nazi salute."
Dieudonne takes his show on the road this week after performances at his regular venue in Paris, a theater he long owned but now rents.
Valls notified regional prefects on Monday that they, along with mayors, can close Dieudonne's shows based on a potential risk to public order and instructed them how to proceed.
The move to keep Dieudonne from performing cuts across political lines. Juppe — a conservative mayor of Bordeaux and a political rival of France's Socialist government — said "conditions are fulfilled" to ban the show in the city on Jan. 26. Other conservative mayors have indicated they want to keep the comic away from their towns, too.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault had said there was "no doubt" that Thursday's show in the western city of Nantes, where he used to be mayor, would get the ax.
That point of view is contested by Dieudonne's lawyer. "We are not at all worried," Sanjay Mirabeau said by telephone.
He contended that officials would have to show that the "risk is real." He said if the show is shut down, the comic's lawyers will demand an urgent judicial review of the matter.
Mirabeau said 5,200 seats in the 6,000-seat theater in Nantes have been sold, and "the house will be full" by Thursday.
Valls said racial and anti-Semitic remarks in Dieudonne's show are legal infractions and "no longer belong to the artistic and creative dimension."
In a notice sent to prefects, Valls said that Dieudonne's show, "The Mur," ("The Wall") contains "disgraceful and anti-Semitic words toward Jewish personalities or the Jewish community ... and virulent and shocking attacks on the memory of victims of the Holocaust."
The 47-year-old Dieudonne (pronounced DYEU-dun-ay) denies his act — or the "quenelle" — is anti-Semitic. However, he has been convicted more than a half-dozen times for inciting racial hatred or anti-Semitism over the years.
He was most recently convicted last fall for using the word "Shoananas," a mash-up of the Hebrew word for Holocaust, which is used in France, and the French word for pineapple. The song was seen as deriding Holocaust survivors and victims.
An investigation was opened last week after Dieudonne allegedly made an anti-Semitic slur toward a Jewish journalist on France-Inter radio. "When I hear him (the journalist) talk, you see ... I say to myself gas chambers ... a pity," Dieudonne said during a performance last month, parts of which were shown on French TV.
The interior minister said he wants the comic's shows banned but conceded that doing so entailed delicate legal questions. Even those who support silencing Dieudonne have voiced fears that doing so could be counterproductive since the issue touches on freedom of expression.
Valls said in his instructions to local officials that they can ban the show in one of two ways: by asserting that public authorities must do so to prevent potential trouble that such a show risks causing, or pronouncing the show itself constitutes a risk to public order.
Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, the famed Nazi hunters, along with their son Arno plan to lead a protest in Nantes on Wednesday, the night before Dieudonne's show.
The Nantes show kicking off the tour is to be followed by appearances in two other French cities this week, then to continue at that rate for months. Dieudonne is scheduled to perform in nearly 30 cities through June.
Mirabeau, the comic's lawyer, noted that Dieudonne's performances have not disturbed public order at the private Paris theater, contending it would be hard to cancel a show with a full house.