PARIS (Reuters) - Mayors of several French cities lined up on Tuesday to ban the shows of a comedian the government accuses of insulting the memory of Holocaust victims and threatening public order with anti-Semitic jibes.
The mayor of Tours barred a performance by Dieudonne M'bala M'bala set for Friday in the central French city, following mayors of Marseille and Bordeaux who late on Monday announced bans on his tour due to start this week.
The row is the latest upset to ties between France's large Muslim and Jewish communities. It won international attention last week after former France striker Nicolas Anelka celebrated an English Premier League goal with a salute popularized by Dieudonne which critics say has an anti-Semitic connotation.
"I am calling on all representatives of the state, particularly its prefects, to be on alert and inflexible," President Francois Hollande said, referring to regional officials charged with maintaining law and order in France.
"No one should be able to use this show for provocation and to promote openly anti-Semitic ideas," he told a meeting of senior government officials in Paris.
Lawyers for Dieudonne, who has been fined for hate speech and who ran in the 2009 European elections at the head of an "Anti-Zionist List" alongside far-right activists, said they would take legal action to defend his right to free speech.
"Freedom of expression is not at the whim of governments or a comedian. It is what makes it possible to do what is hardest between humans - notably to say what you feel to someone," they said in a written statement announcing the launch of legal complaints for defamation and invasion of privacy.
They accused the Socialist government of using the issue to rally their voters ahead of municipal and European elections in coming months where widespread anger at unemployment is seen fuelling a strong vote for the far-right National Front.
REVERSE "NAZI SALUTE"
Dieudonne's tour is due to start this Thursday in the western city of Nantes. Local officials have yet to announce whether the show there will be allowed to go ahead or not.
Supporters of Dieudonne say the argument that he is a threat to public order is false because his performances take place behind closed theatre doors rather than in the streets.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls pushed for bans on Dieudonne after Jewish groups complained about his trademark straight-arm gesture, which they call a "Nazi salute in reverse" and link to a growing frequency of anti-Semitic remarks and acts in France.
In the worst recent anti-Semitic incident, a French Islamist killed a rabbi and three pupils at a Jewish school last year in the southwestern French city of Toulouse.
Dieudonne, 46, Paris-born son of a Cameroonian father and French mother, calls the gesture "la quenelle" - the word for an elongated fish dumpling - and says it is a statement of his anti-Zionist and anti-establishment views, not anti-Semitism.
The gesture has gone viral on social media and West Bromwich Albion striker Anelka is being investigated by the English Football Association for his use of it during a December 28 soccer match. NBA basketball star Tony Parker, a Frenchman, has apologized for a three-year-old photo of him making the salute.
Two soldiers were sanctioned by the army in September for making the gesture in uniform in front of a Paris synagogue. Other supporters have submitted photos of themselves to fan web sites making the sign at Berlin's Holocaust memorial and near the gates of the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp in Poland.
(Additional reporting by Mourad Guichard in Orleans; Elisabeth Pineau in Paris; Editing by Tom Heneghan)