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.
Local authorities in Nantes barred the opening date in Dieudonne M'bala M'bala's tour set for Thursday, hours after similar shows were banned by mayors in Marseille, Bordeaux and Tours.
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 repeatedly for hate speech, said they would take legal action to defend him.
"Freedom of expression is not at the whim of governments or a comedian," they said in a statement announcing the launch of legal complaints for defamation and invasion of privacy.
They accused the Socialist government of using the issue to rally 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.
Its leader, Marine Le Pen, has striven to distance the party from its earlier anti-Semitic leanings. She told Le Figaro newspaper she was "shocked" by Dieudonne but criticized the government for exaggerating the importance of the affair.
Dieudonne supporters say the public order argument is false because he performs inside theatres rather than in the streets.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls pushed to ban his shows 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, says the gestures is a statement of his anti-Zionist and anti-establishment views, not anti-Semitism.
West Bromwich Albion striker Anelka is being investigated by the English Football Association for using 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