Anti-Semitic or not, 'quenelle' gesture shows bigger issues in France

President Hollande today called for cities to cancel shows by comedian Dieudonné, who popularized the quenelle gesture that many say is anti-Semitic.

Sang Tan/AP/File
West Bromwich Albion's Nicolas Anelka (r.) makes a 'quenelle' gesture to celebrates his goal against West Ham United during a soccer match in London late last month. The gesture, popularized by French comedian Dieudonné, is said by critics to be anti-Semitic, and the government has called for Dieudonné's shows to be canceled.

The tour circuit of notorious comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala has been cut short, as local officials have heeded French government warnings that the French performer is stoking anti-Semitism with his trademark gesture, the "quenelle."

What the quenelle really means is under hot debate. Critics – including French President François Hollande – say it is a reverse Nazi salute and anti-Semitic. Defenders argue that it is simply a gesture, albeit an obscene one, like a raised middle finger.

But regardless, the debate itself is highlighting the rise of anti-Semitism in France – as well as in Europe at large.

The most recent fury began after Nicolas Anelka, a French soccer player currently playing in England, scored a goal on Dec. 28 and made the quenelle in his celebration. Though a quenelle is literally a kind of fish dumpling, it has become the slang name for the gesture: one arm across the chest, hand on the shoulder, with the other extended out and down, palm facing the ground.

Many who perform the gesture, including the comedian, known simply as Dieudonné, say it is only an anti-establishment message used to show generalized discontent. But photos across social media reveal many making the gesture in front of synagogues and Holocaust memorial sites. And the similarity of the quenelle to the Nazi salute have fueled belief that it is inherently anti-Semitic.

To the French government, it's the latest example of hate speech that is spreading across France – hate speech that is illegal under French law. And while authorities say that the gesture is vague enough to avoid prosecution, Dieudonné, as the foremost advocate of the quenelle, is nonetheless coming under fire.

French Interior Minister Manuel Valls on Monday pushed for a ban on the Dieudonné tour, starting this week, and his move was backed by President Hollande today. “I am calling on all representatives of the state, particularly its prefects, to be on alert and inflexible," President Hollande said. “No one should be able to use this show for provocation and to promote openly anti-Semitic ideas.”

Now Dieudonné faces bans in Nantes, where the tour was to begin Thursday, as well as Tours, Marseille, and Bordeaux.

His lawyers claim that the Hollande administration is simply electioneering, trying to win votes ahead of March municipal elections as the mainstream loses ground to the far-right National Front (FN).

But despite all the political debate about the quenelle, it is clear that perceptions of prejudice are on the rise across the continent.

A November poll by the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), taken of Jews in eight countries where 90 percent of the region's Jewish people reside, showed that 76 percent believe that anti-Semitism has gotten worse in the past five years. In the countries surveyed – Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden, and Britain – it was France that topped the list for respondents' fears of becoming a victim of verbal insult or physical attack, with 70 and 60 percent respectively fearing such attacks. That compares to the eight-country average of 46 percent fearing verbal harassment and 33 percent violence.

And, as reported in a Monitor story last month about racist slurs directed at French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, a report by the National Consultative Commission of Human Rights (CNCDH) last spring showed that racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim acts and threats in France grew by 23 percent in 2012.

French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Lévy, when asked in an interview with Le Parisien (and republished on the Huffington Post) whether racism and anti-Semitism are on the rise in France, was clear in his answer.

“With regard to racism, obviously,” he said. “With regard to anti-Semitism, I'm afraid the situation may not be any better, and I'm shocked to hear more and more young Jews wondering if they're still welcome in a country that tolerates Nazi salutes in front of the deportation memorial or the Jewish school in Toulouse, where four children were killed because they were Jewish. We have to stop this spiral of hate.”

Interior Minister Valls has sought to do just that. Dieudonné is not his first target. Over the summer, the government outlawed five extreme right groups for the same declared reasons. “There is no place in our country for hate, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, or anti-Muslim acts,” Valls said last July.

His political opponents cried foul then, and are doing the same today. Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front, expressed sympathy for Dieudonné. “The liberties of the French are constantly under attack by this Socialist government,” he said, according to the Financial Times. “We are not allowed to laugh any more.”

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