What’s in a gesture? The quenelle’s ugly undertones

A probe was launched Monday into whether comedian Dieudonné broke French law by joking about WWII gas chambers, days after his trademark "quenelle", a downward Nazi-style salute, made headlines when a French footballer used it to celebrate a goal.


The scandal has led to renewed calls by French Interior Minister Manuel Valls to ban public appearances by French anti-Zionist comedian and would-be politician Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala (pictured), who is credited with inventing the gesture.

Valls is considering whether to ban all of his public appearances, saying Dieudonné is "no longer a comedian" but rather an "anti-Semite and racist".

Paris prosecutors launched a probe Monday to determine whether Dieudonné is guilty of breaking French laws against inciting racial hatred by joking about "gas chambers" while talking about a Jewish journalist. Judicial sources said the probe would centre around a December 19 performance by Dieudonné, 47, at a Paris theatre where he mocked Jewish radio journalist Patrick Cohen.

"When I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I tell myself, you know, the gas chambers... Shame," Dieudonné said.

Until recently, a quenelle was simply a type of dumpling that is a speciality of the south-eastern French city of Lyon. But the term is now also associated with Dieudonné's gesture of pointing one arm downwards while touching the upper arm with the other hand, in what some describe as a Nazi-style salute.

While similar to the French “up yours” gesture, many also see it as overtly anti-Semitic.

On Saturday the quenelle made global headlines after West Bromwich Albion striker Nicolas Anelka celebrated his second goal against West Ham with a quenelle at a football match in England.

Reacting to a storm of outrage, Anelka said he made the gesture in support of his friend Dieudonné. He also tweeted that the gesture was merely "anti-establishment".

But Alain Jakubowicz, president of the French League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, described the quenelle as a "reverse Nazi salute signifying the sodomisation of the victims of the Shoah".

Others, including Béatrice Bourges, spokeswoman of the “French Spring” movement that campaigned against the legalisation of gay marriage, called the quenelle an “anti-establishment gesture” of “social protest”.

And while the quenelle is not officially an anti-Semitic gesture, the choice of location for many that have had their pictures doing it might suggest otherwise.

Holocaust quenelles

In September, two French soldiers on duty in Paris had their picture taken in front of a synagogue while doing a quenelle.

French National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who famously called the holocaust a “detail” of the Second World War, has been pictured making the gesture and grinning broadly.

French essayist and fim-maker Alain Soral, a friend of Dieudonné who has been accused of anti-Semitism and is a leading thinker of the French far-right, was photographed in front of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin doing a quenelle.

Other pictures circulating on the Internet include members of the public making the gesture at the Auschwitz extermination camp in Poland, and in front of goods wagons that were used to transport Jews to their deaths during the Second World War.

The quenelle trademarked

The quenelle got its first public outing in 2005 during a sketch by Dieudonné – who has been convicted seven times on anti-Semitism charges – that, in itself, was not anti-Semitic.

In his performance, Dieudonné describes a revolt by mammals against the human race.

“Mammals are getting organised, they are watching us,” he says. “The dolphin, when he sees a human these days, is mocking us. He knows that he will use his flipper to smash us, right up to here,” he adds, illustrating his point by slapping his shoulder in the gesture that has since become the quenelle.

Since then the quenelle has spread rapidly in France. French academic and far-right expert Jean-Yves Camus, in an interview in left-leaning daily newspaper Libération in September, called the quenelle a “badge of identity, especially among the young, although it is difficult to say whether they really understand its meaning”.

Camus added that Dieudonné has become the focus of a “broad movement that is anti-system and prone to conspiracy theories, but which has anti-Semitism as its backbone”.

“Their conviction is that there is a world order dominated by Washington and Tel Aviv,” he said. “Behind speeches that are critical of NATO and global finance, and supportive of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad and [late Venezuelan president] Hugo Chavez, there is the underlying conviction that it is the Jews who are pulling all the strings.”

In August 2013, Dieudonné posted a video in which he argued that the quenelle had taken on a life of its own and had become something he could no longer claim as his exclusively.

“I had no idea that this rather silly gesture could become a subversive act that was capable of becoming the trigger to start the emancipation of the working masses,” he said. “It no longer belongs to me. It belongs to the coming revolution.”

But his claim that the quenelle no longer belongs to him is not altogether true. The comedian has been busy launching a range of quenelle-related merchandise, while his wife in October registered the quenelle as a trademark with the French National Industrial Property Institute.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)


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