PARIS (AFP) - France moved on Monday to try and ban performances by controversial comic Dieudonne just days before the start of a nationwide tour of a one-man show containing anti-semitic material.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls said he had advised local prefects of police that Dieudonne's shows could be banned if they are deemed to present a threat to public order.
"With the tour about to begin, I believe I had no choice but to take action," Mr Valls told reporters.
Authorities in the southwestern city of Bordeaux were the first to act, banning the comedian's January 26 show for undisclosed reasons, and officials elsewhere are also considering preventing him from performing.
The comedian has prompted outrage with his anti-Jewish comments - one of his latest being quips about gas chambers - and anti-racism protests have been planned around his upcoming shows.
Government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said there would clearly be a threat to public order around the first leg of the planned tour, due to start on Thursday in the western city of Nantes.
But a ban is complicated legally in light of France's powerful constitutional provisions on the freedom of speech. Dieudonne's lawyer, Jacques Verdier, said his client would immediately appeal against any ban on him performing.
Long a controversial figure, Dieudonne's prominence has increased recently as a result of the growing popularity of his trademark arm gesture, dubbed the "quenelle".
Many see the gesture as a reference to the Nazis' Hitler salute, but the comedian's supporters say it is a generic "up yours" show of defiance towards the establishment.
Dieudonne fans have spread photographs of themselves performing the quenelle gesture online.
Some of these appear to be pranks, such as when a smiling Valls posed for a picture with a group of teenage boys who all adopted the pose without the minister noticing.
But many of them have had sinister overtones with the pictures being taken outside synagogues, a holocaust museum and the school in Toulouse where Islamist gunman Mohammed Merah killed a rabbi and three Jewish children in 2012.
Veteran Nazi-hunters to lead protests
Footballer Nicolas Anelka caused outrage last month when he used the quenelle to celebrate goals for his English club West Brom, but he denied any anti-semitic intent.
Critics of the government's bid to ban Dieudonne say this not only breaches free speech but also serves to enhance the comic's cult status with marginalised youth in the rundown suburbs of the country's major urban centres.
That fear was voiced on Monday by France's Human Rights League (LDH).
"Rather than embarking on preemptive bans with a shaky legal foundation and uncertain political results, the authorities should concentrate on punishing crimes once they are committed," the organisation said in a statement.
Valls is seeking to force Dieudonne to cough up tens of thousands of euros in outstanding fines related to his repeated breaches of anti-racism laws.
The comic has yet to pay a cent of the total of 65,290 euros ($88,500) he has been fined following convictions for crimes including defamation and hate speech.
Despite his controversial record, Dieudonne is very popular with sections of the French public.
More than 5,000 tickets have been sold for the Nantes show and it emerged on Monday that Dieudonne supporters had created a quenelle emoticon for use in private Facebook messages.
The show Dieudonne is due to take on the road, entitled "The Wall", has already been performed in Paris and includes a string of derogatory references to Jews.
The 47-year-old comic, the son of a Cameroonian father and white French mother, has his own theatre in Paris, where he was recently secretly filmed mocking Jewish radio presenter Patrick Cohen.
"When I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I tell myself, you know, the gas chambers... a shame," Dieudonne said.
Those remarks led many who had previously argued that it was best just to ignore Dieudonne, to start calling for his shows to be banned.
Veteran Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld have led the calls and have vowed to go to Nantes to spearhead this week's protests.