Even before last week's horrific events, the relative complexity of free speech in France could be encapsulated by Dieudonné M’bala M’bala⎯a political comedian or practitioner of hate speech, depending on your take.
Dieudonné, as he's known, infamously popularized the "quenelle," a reverse Nazi salute that gets around the existing French ban on the traditional Nazi salute. (One touches the left shoulder with the right hand while the left arm stretches downward, an inversion of the "Heil Hitler" greeting.) Here's how France's current prime minister Manuel Valls characterized the quenelle last year: "This gesture is a gesture of hatred, it’s an anti-Semitic gesture and all those who perform it should know—they can’t deny knowledge—that they are performing an anti-Semitic gesture, an inverted Nazi gesture."
Valls' criticism followed a controversy in which a number of photos of the salute surfaced, performed by French soldiers outside of a synagogue in Paris, people malingering outside of Holocaust memorials, and a French soccer star after scoring a goal. French courts, which enforce the country's restrictive hate speech laws, have previously found Dieudonné guilty of such crimes as defamation, libel, and incitement to hatred and racial discrimination, but a ban on the quenelle hasn't materialized yet.
Days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the ensuing violent hostage situations, Dieudonné is back in the news. On Monday, the Paris prosecutor’s office announced that it will investigate a (since-deleted) Facebook post in which Dieudonné wrote a short missive about the solidarity march in Paris, ending it with the words “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.”