French Interior Minister Manuel Valls has indicated that the quenelle, the quasi-Nazi salute widely seen as anti-Semitic, violates his country’s anti-hate laws.

Valls said the quenelle is a form of incitement to hatred despite claims that it is merely anti-establishment rather than anti-Semitic.

“This gesture is a gesture of hatred, it’s an anti-Semitic gesture and all those who perform it should know — they can’t deny knowledge — that they are performing an anti-Semitic gesture, an inverted Nazi gesture,” Valls said at a Tuesday news conference in Paris.

Spreading hateful gestures with intent to offend is illegal according to French law. Valls’s statements about the quenelle — the strongest by a French senior official — were interpreted by analysts from several French media as an indication that he may be planning to extend the prohibition to the quenelle.

Meyer Habib, a French Jewish lawmaker, on Monday wrote on Twitter that he will submit a bill proposing a ban on the quenelle.

Meanwhile, French police were searching for a man who performed the quenelle at three locales connected to the murder of Jews. A photo published Monday on the website of the France 3 broadcaster shows the man, wearing a shirt featuring a portrait of Yasser Arafat, in front of the Ohr Torah school where the Muslim extremist Mohammed Merah, in March 2012 killed three children and a rabbi in 2012.

The man also was seen performing the quenelle outside the former residence of Merah, who was killed during a shootout with French police, according to the French Jewish news site JSSnews.com. Additionally, he posed while performing the quenelle near a Paris monument commemorating the Holocaust.

Police sources in Toulouse told French media that the man is wanted for questioning.

The quenelle is the name given to the gesture by its inventor, the comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, who has been convicted several times for inciting hatred against Jews. Dieudonne is facing an eighth trial for suggesting a French Jewish journalist belonged in a gas chamber.

French comedian Dieudonne M'bala M'bala performing the quenelle in 2008 (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala performing the quenelle in 2008 (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

The gesture is widely seen as echoing the Nazi salute but was thought too vague to violate French laws against displaying Nazi symbols. In recent months, the quenelle’s popularity has soared in France, with several celebrities performing it on national media.

Valls last week said he would seek a ban on public performances by Dieudonne.

On Saturday, soccer player Nicolas Anelka, a French national playing for England’s West Bromwich Albion soccer team, was roundly condemned for performing the salute during a match.

Nicolas Anelka makes the 'quenelle' gesture on December 28 (screenshot: YouTube)

Nicolas Anelka makes the ‘quenelle’ gesture on December 28 (screenshot: YouTube)

England’s Football Association has launched an investigation of the Anelka incident, and he faces a possible ban. His team said he had promised not to repeat the gesture.

France’s former sports minister Chantal Jouanno demanded sanctions against the soccer star. “The quenelle is a Nazi gesture that is clearly anti-Semitic and known to be such,” she said. “There’s no point in arguing about the interpretation.”

Valls said he would seek a ban on Dieudonne’s shows “on the grounds that they were a threat to public order,” the Guardian reported.

According to the report, citing an interview in Le Parisien, the last straw for Valls was the comedian’s remarks about Jewish journalists. “In a recent show, Dieudonne said of the journalist Patrick Cohen, who asked him last week whether journalists were giving him too much attention, that ‘when I hear Patrick Cohen speaking, I say to myself, you see, the gas chambers … too bad [they no longer exist],’” the Guardian reported.

At least three French cities withdrew from the comedian’s initial 27-venue show, including Caen, Montbéliard and Nice, while tickets in Marseille were no longer available as of Sunday, according to the report. Authorities in other cities were also preparing for the legal move by the interior minister.

Over the past two months, the “quenelle” trend has gained popularity, prompting hundreds of Europeans to post pictures of themselves online performing the heil-like salute. Many of the images were taken at sensitive sites such as in the Auschwitz concentration camp, the Anne Frank House and even the Western Wall.

Use of the “quenelle” is “gaining more and more momentum, is very pervasive on the internet and social networks, and is increasingly becoming a symbol of the Nazi regime, and does not look like a passing phenomenon,” Yaakov Hagouel, the Head of the World Zionist Organization’s Department for Combating Antisemitism, told Hebrew website Ynet earlier this month.

Dieudonne, a professed anti-Semite, Hamas supporter and Holocaust denier, was convicted last month for a seventh time of incitement against Jews and slapped with a $36,000 fine.

The quenelle is of a piece with Dieudonne’s coining of the term “shoananas,” a mashup of the Hebrew word for Holocaust and the French word for pineapple that is seen as a safe way to suggest the Holocaust is a myth while not running afoul of French laws prohibiting Holocaust denial. Dieudonne fans have taken to performing the quenelle next to pineapples.