Up until the 28th December 2013 few Britons could claim to know what a “quenelle” was, writes Hafsa Kara-Mustpha.
Since West Brom player Nicolas Anelka performed a gesture known in France as a “quenelle” after he scored his third goal against West Ham, many now know the word but sadly few are able to describe its meaning. Fewer still, the FA included, can articulate why it would lead to Anelka being banned for five games and fined £80 000.
In the week following the now infamous game and the furore caused over what appeared to most viewers as an innocuous hand gesture, defining what a quenelle means has been farcical.
The first accusations were that Muslim convert Anelka performed an “inverted Nazi Salute,” leading some to argue that this could be viewed as a good thing and a clear rejection of Nazism. Others also described it as anti-Semitic because out of the thousands who had taken to doing it in France, five performed quenelles in front of synagogues or Aushwitz concentration camp.
It rapidly emerged that the man behind the quenelle gesture was Franco-Cameroon comic Dieudonne, shunned from mainstream media since he performed a sketch on live TV in 2003 mocking an extremist Israeli settler. Having mocked African despotic leaders on the payroll of France or Muslim youths taken in by extremist ideology, Dieudonne assumed humour knew no limits in a society priding itself on being a beacon of free speech.
The truth is however that France is still reeling from the active role it played in the deportation of Jews during the Second World War and any reference to the Holocaust, Israel or any other Jewish-related topic is off limits. While most people would view France as a healthy and vibrant democracy, the fact is censorship remains rife and a sycophantic media – often derided around the world – ensures the status quo remains unchallenged.
French enlightenment philosopher Voltaire famously declared “that I may hate what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it,” but his revolutionary thinking has since become more nuanced with only Muslims are expected to sign up to that wide-ranging view on free thought and speech.
In 2012 French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of Prophet Muhammad praying naked while a paparazzi was taking pictures of his private parts, and others showed him surrounded by a female harem of children. When Muslims protested, socialist Manuel Valls declared that freedom of expression was sacrosanct in France and that Muslims had to accept that. When it comes to the issue of the holocaust however, that right to offend finds its limits.
The “Eldest daughter of the Church”- as France was referred to by Rome until recently – may now claim to be a truly secular country. Catholicism has now been replaced by “Shoah worship,” or the act of sanctifying above all else the slaughter of millions of Jews, Roma and gays at the hands of Adolf Hitler and making any mockery of it blasphemous.
Of course by choosing to use to Hebrew word Shoah – meaning sacrifice – the French system gives the holocaust a uniquely Jewish character excluding all others from the protection offered to one group of victims. Yet ironically, the majority of French Jews are Sephardic from North Africa who did not suffer Nazi atrocities. This approach to history has been deliberately used for the past six decades to stifle any criticism of Israel.
Indeed the Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juive de France (Crif) – France’s equivalent to Aipac – has even lobbied the French parliament to have any criticism of Israel labelled anti-Semitic. While this move may have been rejected by French politicians both the media and political class sign up to this unwritten rule and routinely accuse Israel critics of anti-Semitism.
Dieudonne, Anelka’s close friend, decided since his exclusion from mainstream media to challenge the French system described by author Jacob Cohen as “servile and completely sold out to Israeli interests.”
As a result of this exclusion, Dieudonne created the quenelle designed as a two finger gesture to the French political system. It became so popular youths from all ethnic or social backgrounds took to taking pictures of themselves doing it, which the comic would upload on his website to point to its growing popularity.
Clearly shaken by this swelling trend, the head of Crif Roger Cukierman, declared the gesture to be anti-Semitic. Alain Jaubovitz – leader of Licra (equivalent of the US anti Defamation league) – who took Dieudonne to court 37 times over claims of anti-Semitism (winning three cases) – chimed in saying the gesture was designed to “sodomise” Jewish victims of the holocaust! This blatant intimidation may appear excessive in any democracy, but in France it is the norm.
France also hosts the movement LDJ (Jewish Defence league) a para-military Jewish organisation known for physically attacking any critic of Israel . The LDJ – which in 2013 boasted on its website about the attack on 70 year old Jewish author Jacob Cohen for his outspoken stance on Israel – is regarded as a terrorist organisation in the US and even Israel.
In France its members routinely film themselves attacking people and upload the footage of their crimes on YouTube to deter any would-be critic. Cohen complained to the French police and later sent a letter to Manuel Valls requesting justice, but to this day the culprits whose names are widely known to the police remain free.
It is in this climate that the same Manuel Valls, now Interior minister, decided to bring out the full force of French law against Dieudonne’s hand gesture which he has been performing almost daily in his stand up routine since 2009. It has therefore taken four years for French officialdom, to come up with the ‘inverted Nazi salute’ or “anti-Semitic” accusation.
Cracks in the story
This story which dominated the news for much of January started to reveal cracks. Footage of Dieudonne including it in his material clearly contradicts the accusation of anti-Semitism as it would appear rather random to hail Hitler when mocking celebrity culture for instance.
Consequently Cukierman announced in late January that a quenelle was not anti-Semitic and could only be seen as such when done in places sacred to Jews or Jewish memory.
Dieudonne responded by vowing to take the head of Crif to court given the damages caused to his and Anelka’s career. Cukeirman therefore retracted his earlier comment the following day announcing that it was in fact anti-Semitic!
No doubt its Cukierman’s re-hashed declaration that prompted the FA to announce that while it was clear Anekla was not an anti-Semite or “that he intended to express or promote anti-Semitism by his use of the quenelle”, he will nevertheless face a five match ban and receive an £80 000 fine.
While there is no evidence of anti-Semitism there is a clear cut case of utter Chutzpah!