In less than 24 hours, a Government banned a comedian and its President threatened legal action against a magazine that reported him having an affair with an actor.

Yet this is not an authoritarian country, but an established democracy whose proud slogan is liberty, equality and fraternity. What on Earth is going on? The answer: France's complex relationship with freedom of speech.

In a move with no precedent in recent French history, the socialist Government of President Francois Hollande last week secured approval in a top court to preventatively ban a show by a man it characterises as the "pedlar of hate".

The target for the wrath is a so-called alternative comedian, Dieudonne M'bala M'bala, who specialises in crude jokes about Jews.


The son of a Cameroonian immigrant and a French mother, Dieudonne has been playing cat-and-mouse with the French authorities for a decade. He has been convicted seven times for inciting racial hatred, although he says his humour is not against Jews but against Zionism.

Until now no government left or right had tried to ban him, and with each provocation he won a wider audience. He has also copyrighted a gesture called "la quenelle," in which one arm is placed horizontally across the body and the other is pointed downward - something that Interior Minister Manuel Valls calls "a reverse Hitler salute," but which supporters say is simply an "up-yours" to France's establishment.

The show that was outlawed had been in preview performances, where it included a sketch in which the comedian pretends to urinate against a wall, and then reveals it is the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest site in Judaism.

Interior Minister Manuel Valls declared the ban as "a victory for the republic". Others see it as a worrying breach of freedom of expression and tactically disastrous by making a martyr out of Dieudonne. The comic says he has scrapped the show but plans to do a new one, and YouTube videos of the "quenelle" by youngsters are flourishing.

"With more Dieudonne shows and rulings ahead, the French Government should stop fighting the comedian like this - it only gives him the oxygen of publicity he desires," said Izza Leghtas of Human Rights Watch.

"This is not a victory for the republic, but a defeat for democracy," said Agnes Tricoire of the French Human Rights League.

Stressing that she personally loathed the comedian's declarations, she said, "This astonishing decision sets a dangerous precedent. Who else is going to be banned for having a controversial point of view?"

Less than 24 hours later, the Socialist head of state went head-to-head with gossip magazine Closer, which ran a seven-page spread of undercover pictures purporting to show him secretly leaving the Elysee presidential palace for trysts with a 41-year-old actor, Julie Gayet. Hollande, it said, went to his rendezvous on the back of a scooter, and his security guard came by in the morning with fresh croissants for the two lovebirds.

Hollande officially lives with but is not married to Valerie Trierweiler, a journalist for whom he left his former partner, fellow Socialist politician Segolene Royal, who is the mother of his four children. Trierweiler lives in the Elysee Palace where she has the role of first lady.

Hollande, in a statement to the news agency AFP, blasted the report as an attack on his privacy, to which he "like every other citizen has a right" and said he was "looking into possible action, including legal action". He did not deny the report, though. Closer has since removed the photo spread from its website, but did not withdraw the allegations, and kept print copies on sale.

Hanky-panky is part and parcel of French political life. But what politicians do behind closed doors is protected by law - invasion of privacy potentially carries a year in jail and a fine of 45,000 ($74,000) - and shielded by something even stronger: omerta.

In French politics, rivals tacitly agree never to moralise about an enemy's sexual misdoings or family misfortunes. The media, too, traditionally never spill the beans, arguing that unlike Britain's muck-raking tabloids they are simply reflecting the public's belief that public and private lives are separate. For instance, Hollande's predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, had a daughter born to a mistress yet Paris journalists - who gossiped about the affair among themselves at cocktail parties and dinners - never published a word.

"When you are a public figure in the Anglo Saxon world, you know that your whole life is being talked about, but that is not the case in France," French Socialist MP Philip Cordery told the Herald.

"There is a right to privacy, which I think is important for politicians."

In the Hollande-Gayet affair, politicians of every hue dutifully rallied round as before to condemn Closer's intrusion, and they included Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right National Front, which specialises in attacking the Paris "elite" for its shortcomings.

The mainstream Paris print media, along with the main TV channels, joined them.

But the decline of the Paris press and the rise of social media is putting the old gag under strain.

Hollande was attacked for his behaviour in some provincial editorials, and there was an angry buzz on Twitter and Facebook, where the pictures have been reposted hundreds of times.

Criticism focused on whether the alleged affair is having a fallout on his political duties and if Trierweiler should continue in her ceremonial role.

"Everyone is watching how Valerie [Trierweiler] will react," said sociologist and author Eric Donfu.

"This episode is occurring at the worst possible moment for Francois Hollande," he said, pointing to a press conference tomorrow night where Hollande has to flesh out his programme for hauling France's economy away from the cliff edge.

He will have to put on an Oscar-winning performance to win over the public: a poll published last week showed that only 25 per cent of those questioned said they trusted Hollande, who has become the most unpopular President in post-war France.

Closer's brashness and the power of the internet are causing cracks in the wall of silence, say some experts.

"We're moving away from the French tradition of respecting private life and we're going towards the Anglo-Saxon system," said Delphine Meillet, an attorney who specialises in media law.

Jocelyn Evans, a Professor of politics at Britain's Leeds University, said that the Government's response to both the Dieudonne and the Gayet affair reflected frustration.

Closer's photos spread like wildfire on the internet, and Dieudonne continued to post videos despite his real-life show being banned. Yet the Government's reflex was that it had to be seen to be doing something.

"To do nothing because the internet has disseminated material is an admission of impotence. In both cases, that is exactly what the Hollande and Socialist Government wishes to avoid at all costs."