Mayors of several French cities have lined up to ban the shows of a comedian the government accuses of insulting the memory of Holocaust victims and threatening public order with anti-Jewish remarks.
The mayor of Tours barred a performance by Dieudonne M'bala M'bala set for Friday, following the lead of the mayors of Marseille and Bordeaux who late on Monday announced bans on his tour due to start this week.
Manuel Valls, France's interior minister, 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-Jewish remarks and acts in France.
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, and is not anti-Jew.
The row over the salute - popularised by Dieudonne and which critics say has anti-Jewish connotation - is the latest upset to ties between France's large Muslim and Jewish communities.
"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
"No one should be able to use this show for provocation and to promote openly anti-Semitic ideas."
Hollande made the remarks in 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 in advance of municipal and European elections in the coming months where widespread anger at unemployment is seen as encouraging a strong vote for the far-right National Front.
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.
It attracted international attention last week after Nicolas Anelka, striker for the West Bromwich Albion football team, celebrated an English Premier League goal with a "quenelle" salute.
Anelka is being investigated by the English Football Association for his action.
Tony Parker, an NBA basketball star and a Frenchman, has apologised 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.