French president backs ban on controversial comic

PARIS (AFP) - French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday backed attempts to ban controversial comic Dieudonne from performing a one-man show that has been widely condemned as anti-Semitic.

Hollande urged local officials to take a hard line in applying an interior ministry circular which authorises city mayors or police prefects to cancel Dieudonne performances on public order grounds.

"The government ... has issued instructions to ensure that no one can use a performance for the goals of provocation and the promotion of overtly anti-Semitic theories," Hollande said in a New Year address to civil servants.

The Socialist leader said local officials had to be "vigilant and inflexible" in their response to what he described as "shameful provocation" without specifically mentioning Dieudonne.

The cities of Bordeaux, Nantes and Tours have already announced they will not allow the comic to perform in their theatres.

But their moves are expected to face legal challenges on freedom of speech grounds before the scheduled start of Dieudonne's tour in Nantes on Thursday.

Although Dieudonne has been performing anti-Semitic material for years and has been convicted repeatedly for hate speech, he has gained greater prominence in the last year as a result of the Internet-driven success of his trademark "quenelle", an arm gesture some have described as a reverse Nazi salute.

Defenders of the comic say the gesture is simply code for an "up yours" message directed at the French establishment.

That claim has been undermined however by the publication of pictures of Dieudonne fans performing quenelles outside synagogues, at a holocaust museum and in front of the school in Toulouse where Islamist gunman Mohammed Merah killed a rabbi and three Jewish children in 2012.

Dieudonne's popularity - more than 5,000 tickets have been sold for the opening night of his tour - has exacerbated concern over a perceived resurgence of anti-Semitism in France under the guise of a brand of anti-Zionism.