By Marion Douet
PARIS (Reuters) - A top French court upheld a ban on the opening night show on Thursday of a comedian whom the government accuses of insulting the memory of Holocaust victims.
The Council of State, France's highest administrative court, issued its last-minute decision just one hour before the show by Dieudonne M'bala M'bala was to begin in the western city of Nantes.
The top court's ruling came after Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who has been leading the effort to stop Dieudonne's national tour, appealed a decision by a lower administrative court that rejected local authorities' efforts to ban the show.
In its ruling, the Council of State - which has previously ruled against bans on Dieudonne performances - cited the risk to public order were the show to proceed.
"It's a big relief," said Valls after the decision.
Fans outside the theatre booed after hearing the news.
"We're disappointed, we came for nothing," one fan told BFM-TV. "Even if you don't agree with what's being said, everyone should be able to express themselves."
Dieudonne's lawyer, Jacques Verdier, has argued that a ban on his client performing would breach his freedom of speech.
Dieudonne, 46, has been repeatedly fined for hate speech and local authorities in Nantes had barred the show following the lead of other cities that did the same on the grounds of risk to public order.
The appeals court's decision validated the efforts of Valls and President Francois Hollande, who had argued for regional prefects to remain "on alert and inflexible" in determining whether or not to ban the shows.
Shown by polls to be France's most popular politician for his tough law and order stance, Valls said before the top court's decision that he recognized the country's free speech laws would make it difficult to stop Dieudonne's show.
Nevertheless, the fight was worth it as it raised the public's consciousness, he said.
Critics say the comic's trademark straight-arm gesture is a Nazi salute in reverse. Dieudonne counters that it is anti-Zionist and anti-establishment, but not anti-Semitic.
Some politicians on the right had criticized the government for devoting so much energy to Dieudonne, and a former conservative interior minister said Valls' approach was ill-prepared.
"In effect it's given untold publicity to Dieudonne," said Brice Hortefeux, interior minister under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, told BFM TV.
The Jewish CRIF umbrella organization had called earlier in the day for a protest in central Paris on Sunday against Dieudonne.
(Writing by Alexandria Sage and Nicholas Vinocur; editing by Mark John and Tom Heneghan)