France considers ban on comedian at center of ‘quenelle’ row

Intensified by soccer star’s Nicolas Anelka’s use of Nazi-like gesture, public fury leads authorities to call for cancellation of Dieudonné’s shows

Anti-Semitic French comic performer Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala (photo credit: CC-BY-SA-3.0 by Jastrow, Wikimedia Commons)
Anti-Semitic French comic performer Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala (photo credit: CC-BY-SA-3.0 by Jastrow, Wikimedia Commons)

French authorities were considering banning a series of shows by French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, the man at the center of a furious row exacerbated by the performance of what is regarded as a Nazi-like, anti-Semitic salute known as the “quenelle” — which he invented — by top soccer player Nicolas Anelka on Saturday.

Anelka performed the salute Saturday to celebrate scoring a goal in the English Premier League, a move praised by Dieudonné on his Facebook page: “Excellent live quenelle by Anelka,” he wrote.”‘Thanks for the support.”

The “quenelle” signal is rapidly spreading among anti-Semites in Europe and is being used by individuals to fly under the radar of strict anti-hate speech laws in parts of the continent. The signal, extending one’s right hand toward the ground while the left hand grasps the shoulder, was devised by Dieudonné, who has been condemned in court several times for anti-Semitic remarks.

The comedian has denied that the gesture is anti-Semitic, arguing that it is in fact “anti-establishment.”

Anelka, for his part, drew widespread condemnation and criticism for the gesture, which he made after scoring for his English club West Bromwich Albion in a game against West Ham United. He said it was “a special dedication to my comedian friend Dieudonné.”

The soccer player defended himself Sunday by mistaking US President Barack Obama for a fan of the offending salute, posting a picture of Obama, rapper Jay Z, and his wife singer Beyonce making a similar gesture.

Obama and the two star performers were in fact posing for a picture doing the well-known “brush off the shoulders” hip-hop move at a NYC fundraiser, which has no connection to the quenelle.

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

Anelka is now being investigated by the Football Association, and could be suspended for several games.

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.”

French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said he would seek a ban on Dieudonné’s shows “on the grounds that they were a threat to public order,” the Guardian reported Sunday.

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, Dieudonné 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.

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)

At least three French cities withdrew from the comedian’s initial 27-venues 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.

Anelka, a former French national team star who has played for top clubs including Arsenal and Real Madrid, converted to Islam in 2004.

Anelka’s club coach, Keith Downing, said after the game Saturday that the player had not intended offense by making the gesture. “It is dedicated to a French comedian he knows very, very well. [The comedian] uses it in his act and I think speculation can be stopped now; it is absolute rubbish really. [Anelka] is totally unaware of what the problems were or the speculation that has been thrown around; he is totally surprised by it.”

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.

In France, displaying Nazi symbols is illegal if done to cause offense. But the quenelle may not be prosecutable. It is just similar enough to the Nazi salute to make its meaning clear, but not so similar that the gesture could be subject to criminal charges.

“The quenelle is too vague to be treated like a Nazi salute,” Anne-Sophie Laguens, a former secretary of the conference of lawyers of the Paris bar association, wrote in a legal analysis published in September in the Le Nouvel Observateur weekly.

Until recently, most Frenchmen knew the word quenelle to mean a sort of dumpling or cookie. But after Dieudonne appropriated the word to refer to a salute of his own invention, the gesture has taken on anti-Semitic overtones.

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. Like the Nazi salute, the quenelle is seen as a variant of the Roman salute and, considering its inventor’s penchant for defiance of France’s anti-Nazi laws, is understood to challenge the prohibition on performing the Nazi salute.

“It’s an inverted Nazi salute,” Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF Jewish umbrella group, told the French media recently.

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.

Laguens’ analysis of the legal implications of the quenelle came days after a young man sitting in the audience of a prime-time television show performed it while smiling for the camera. A Facebook user identified as Leo Romano planned a “quenelle party” for Dec. 22 in eastern France, but on Tuesday he said he had been summoned to the office of France’s domestic intelligence agency.

A young man displays the quenelle in front of the main gate of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
A young man displays the quenelle in front of the main gate of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

“It’s an anti-establishment gesture, not a racist or anti-Semitic one, as the media would have you believe to discredit us,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Outside France, the quenelle is virtually unknown. This has allowed the users of anti-Semitic Internet forums to relish the irony of photographs of French tourists performing the quenelle while posing with an oblivious Israeli soldier and at the Western Wall.

But in France, the gesture is being treated with increasing seriousness by government officials. In a statement recently, President Francois Hollande suggested his government would move to undermine the sense of legal impunity now enjoyed by those who perform the quenelle.

“We will act, with the government led by [Prime Minister] Jean-Marc Ayrault, to shake the tranquility which, under the cover of anonymity, facilitates shameful actions online,” Hollande said. “But also we will fight against the sarcasm of those who purport to be humorists but are actually professional anti-Semites.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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