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 ahead of the comic's tour.
The unusual move by minister Manuel Valls targets Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, who has performed for decades but is now especially 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."
Comedian Dieudonné M'Bala M'Bala, who has performed for more than two decades and has a small but faithful following, contends the gesture dubbed the quenelle is no more than an anti-system sign, the equivalent of "shove it."
The gesture features one arm pointing downward, palm down and extended, while the other arm stretches across the chest, with a hand touching the shoulder.
Professional sports stars like soccer player Nicolas Anelka abd basketball player Tony Parker have used it to celebrate goals, but both later said they did not understand it was an anti-Semitic gesture.
Dieudonné takes his show on the road this week after performances at his regular venue in Paris, a theatre he has long owned.
Valls notified regional prefects on Monday that they, along with mayors, can close Dieudonné's shows based on a potential risk to public order and instructed them how to proceed.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said there's "no doubt" that Thursday's show in the western city of Nantes, where he used to be mayor, would get the axe.
That point of view is contested by Dieudonné'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 theatre in Nantes have been sold, and "the house will be full" by Thursday.
Valls said racial and anti-Semitic remarks in Dieudonné's show are legal infractions and "no longer belong to the artistic and creative dimension."
In a notice sent to prefects, Valls said that Dieudonné'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."
Convicted of inciting racial hatred
The 47-year-old Dieudonné 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 Dieudonné 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," Dieudonné 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 back silencing Dieudonné 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 Dieudonné's show. The Nantes show kicking off the tour is to be followed by appearances in two more French cities this week, then continue at that rate for months. Dieudonné is scheduled to perform in nearly 30 cities through June.
Mirabeau, the comic's lawyer, noted that Dieudonné's performances have not disturbed public order at the private Paris theatre, contending it would be hard to cancel a show with a full house.