In France, comedian’s trial suggests mocking religion has its limits

PARIS — Less than a month after the attack on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo sparked massive free speech demonstrations across the country, authorities here moved swiftly to show that even in France, mocking religion has its limits.

On Wednesday (Jan. 28), controversial French comedian Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala appeared in court on charges of inciting racial hatred. At issue: comments he made two years ago regretting that a prominent Jewish journalist had not died in the “gas chambers.”

M’Bala M’Bala — better-known in France by his first name, Dieudonne — has sparked outrage over the years for his anti-Semitic jabs, including a straight-armed gesture that quickly went viral and was taken up by the far right. Authorities banned several of his performances last year that featured the gesture, which Jewish groups liken to a Nazi salute.

On Thursday, Dieudonne faced a separate charge of inciting terrorism for posting on his Facebook page this month that he felt like “Charlie Coulibaly” — in reference to the gunman who killed four Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris, just two days after the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Charlie Hebdo’s irreverent and sometimes crude drawings spoofing religious figures — ranging from Jesus to the Prophet Muhammad — have been the publication’s trademark and reflect a long-cherished French tradition of biting satire.

A week after the January attack on its Paris office, the weekly came out with a new edition, again featuring the Muslim prophet. As hundreds of thousands of French snapped up copies, millions of angry Muslims staged protests worldwide.

Like Dieudonne, Charlie Hebdo has had its share of court cases — but has managed to win most of them. Blasphemy is not a crime in France; Holocaust denial is, thanks to a 1990 law.

At his hearing this week, the French comedian said he wanted to “make peace” with his critics and denied he was anti-Semitic.