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Visiting France

Donel Jack'sman: Laughing in the face of racism

media Thirty-seven year old Cameroonian comedian, Donel Jack'sman, performing at L'Européen comedy club in Paris, 27 December 2017 Christine Coquilleau/Instagram

French comedian Donel Jack'sman, renowned for poking fun at racial stereotypes, has returned to the stage two weeks after being called sale noir or "black bastard" during a Christmas performance.

The incident in late December went viral and earned Jack'sman, who is of Cameroonian descent, a flurry of support including from French President Emmanuel Macron. It has shone a spotlight on racism and discrimination that still mars France's entertainment industry.

"When it comes to racism, we are no longer talking about humour," the 37-year-old comic told RFI by phone.

"I'm a comedian, of course I'm not telling people to stop laughing. However, when it becomes racism, it's serious. Racism is not an opinion, it's a criminal offence," he said.

This is not the first time Jack'sman has faced racist slurs. This time though, it was outwardly brazen.

In a video posted on his Instagram page, a man can be heard calling him sale noir or "black bastard" several times during a Christmas performance in Nice in the south of France.

"The first thing I felt was shock," he says of that night on 23 December.

The comedian had just finished joking about the unease sometimes felt by supporters of the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen in admitting their views, as part of his stand-up show: On ne se connait pas, on ne se juge pas (I don't know you, you don't know me, let's not judge).

"That's why I asked him to repeat what he said three times," Jack'sman said.

"Perhaps, he was trying to be funny and it went wrong. It was inconceivable to me that someone could say such a thing in public. Furthermore, someone who had paid their ticket to watch a black artist. I didn't want to believe in that kind of France."

Yet the unequivocal tone of the man's voice when challenged, seemed to confirm Jack'sman's worst fears.

"Ten years ago, when I was just starting out, I was racially insulted as well," he comments.

At that period, the comic was still among a pool of rising comedians that included the controversial figure Cyril Hanouna and Vérino.

"The context was different. It was a boozy night and the audience was tipsy. Of course it doesn't excuse what happened."

Support from the president

What happened was a near repeat of the night of 23 December. Jack'sman was called "black bastard" that time too, while Hanouna and Vérino were equally targeted.

"You could say that being racially insulted twice in two years may seem like nothing. But at the same time, two times in ten years means that things are not moving."

Since this latest incident, the comic has received an outpouring of support from top officials including French interior minister Christophe Castaner.

Castaner tweeted: "It is unimaginable and yet hate speech is being expressed openly...Let's refuse to trivialise racism like racists do, because racism can never be trivial."

Even President Emmanuel Macron has weighed in on the debate, calling the comic shortly after the incident.

"The president told me he was saddened about what had happened to me," explains Jack'sman. "Afterwards, I'm not sure if he's doing this to score political points," he said, referring to the difficult political situation Macron faces in managing the ongoing Yellow Vest protests.

"But I think he was sincere. Macron is the busiest man in France right now, so if he took the time to call me it must mean he cares."

In the president's New Year's address, he notably touched upon the issue of intercultural relations, otherwise known as France's so-called vivre-ensemble.

Racism after the World Cup

For Jack'sman, it was recognition that the fight against racism "concerns us all."

"People think that just because Zinedine Zidane and Omar Sy are voted personalities of the year that racism doesn't exist. It does."

The affair has taken some of the gloss off of France's image of a multicultural society, championed after its football team, many of them from Paris' troubled suburbs, won the World Cup.

Jack'sman, an urban kid himself, who grew up in Villiers-le-Bel on the outskirts of Paris, calls for a more united France, one more open to diversity.

"Even if France's football team is composed of mainly black and Arab players, they are still [French] and feel French."

Fighting prejudice

Racism in France is not new. Jack'sman recalls the abuse his peers such as Jamel Debbouze received when he first presented his Jamel Comedy Club.

"The audience was not used to sketches about black and Arab people. They thought it was comedy for outcasts."

Producers too were reluctant to open the floor to black and ethnic minorities. Jack'sman's big break only came after juggling his university studies, a part time job and acting lessons at the prestigious Cours Florent acting school.

"Today, mentalities are evolving, and the fact that me and other personalities like Omar Sy have made it does give some hope," he reckons.

As for the man who insulted him, his identity remains unknown. Jack'sman though, is determined to keep fighting prejudice.

"I've filed a complaint against X," he explains, "to encourage other victims of racism to come forward."

Tickets for his last performance on 5 January at La Cigale in Paris were sold out, "way before the 'black bastard' incident occurred," he insists, eager not to make profit out of racism.

Instead, he's announced that the proceeds from his next two performances on 27 January and 1 February will go towards groups that tackle racism.

"I will never let the racists win," he says, refusing to be the butt of his own jokes.

"Each time they attack me, I become stronger. They're the reason why I'm still in this business," he said.

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