The French government on Thursday hailed as a "victory" over anti-Semitism a last-ditch decision by the country's highest administrative court the Council of State to uphold a ban on a performance by controversial comic Dieudonne.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who has led the campaign to deny the comedian, who goes by his first name, Dieudonne, a platform in France, hailed the ruling as a victory for the country's fundamental values.
"We cannot tolerate hatred of others, racism, anti-Semitism or holocaust denial," Valls said. "That is not France and the highest (administrative) court in the land has said as much and has said it clearly. This is a victory for the Republic."
Earlier a French judge had ordered authorities in Nantes to lift a ban on controversial comic Dieudonne performing in the western city.
The ruling meant Dieudonne, whose act has been widely condemned as anti-Semitic, was initially free to perform the opening show of a planned nationwide tour on Thursday evening.
More than 5,000 tickets have been sold for the performance at Nantes' Zenith Theatre.
But then then Council of State made an eleventh hour decision to uphold the ban with many spectators already at the venue and with Dieudonné at the venue preparing for tonight's show.
The twitter pic below shows the crowd queuing up to get in the venue. There have been anti-Valls chants and as well as chants calling for "freedom of expression" among the crowd.
"No one wants to leave. The people are staying in front of the Zenith to watch Dieudonné", tweeted French journalist Paul Laubacher.
— Paul Laubacher (@Paul_Laubacher) January 9, 2014
The government initially wanted to ban the comic on the grounds he was a threat to public order, but ironically with the late ban angering his thousands of supporters in Nantes it appears the government has inadvertantly created a scenario where there is a threat of public disorder.
There is a high police presence at the Nantes' Zenith venue seen in this Twitter pic below.
— fabien magnenou (@fmagnenou) January 9, 2014
There were reports of members of the crowd making Nazi salutes outside the venue as well as the now infamous "quenelle" sign, which Dieudonné says is anti-establishment and critics say is anti-Semitic.
Dieudonné himself was forced to issue a plea for calm on his Facebook page.
"Please be calm, be peaceful and we will keep you up to date," the message read.
Earlier the judge's initial decision to lift the ban which gave Dieudonné the green light to perform left government ministers furious, which lead to Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who had vowed to ban the comic, calling an emergency meeting of the Council of State (Conseil d'etat), which advises the government on legal mattters.
After the decision Prime Minister Ayrault tweeted: "The French government is more determined than ever to fight racism and anti-Semitism. The state has appealed the decision.
Mon gouvernement est plus que jamais déterminé à faire reculer le racisme et l’antisémitisme. L'Etat fait appel du jugement.
— Jean-Marc Ayrault (@jeanmarcayrault) January 9, 2014
Dieudonné has been convicted for hate speech in the past but insists his shows are anti-Zionist rather than anti-Semitic.
The Council of State's decision to uphold the ban on Dieudonne in Nantes leaves the rest of a tour which is scheduled to run until June in doubt, although planned dates in neighbouring Belgium and Switzerland are expected to go ahead in line with recent legal rulings in those countries.
A landmark break with French legal precedent
The decision marks a landmark break with legal precedent in France, where previous attempts to ban Dieudonne from performing foundered against constitutional provisions on free speech which were famously articulated by the philosopher Voltaire's maxim: "I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
Dieudonne's lawyer, Jacques Verdier, said Thursday that a ban on his client's performances was ridiculous given that a film of Dieudonne's latest show, entitled The Wall, had already been posted online.
"You are seeking to ban a show that is already in the public domain," Verdier told the court in Nantes.
Preview performances of The Wall in Paris included a sketch in which the comedian mimed urinating against a wall. He then reveals that it was the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
He also directs volleys of abuse at prominent French Jewish performers, rounding off one rant about radio presenter Patrick Cohen with the observation: "Gas chambers … a shame."
In court, Dieudonne's lawyer also rejected suggestions that the "quenelle" – a stiff-arm gesture that has become his signature and helped fuel his fame – had anti-Semitic overtones.
The comedian could not be held responsible for incidents in which some of his fans have been pictured doing the quenelle at Auschwitz or outside synagogues in France, the lawyer argued.