Furore grows over French comic Dieudonne's 'anti-Semitic' gesture

Amid moves to ban him from the stage, comedian says his sign is anti-establishment

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 5:36am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 5:36am


It's caught on like a dance move - one hand pointing downward, the other touching the shoulder with an arm across the chest. But for many, the gesture popularised by a French comic is hateful and anti-Semitic.

Now, France's top security official wants to ban him from the stage.

Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala has a small but faithful following of fans from disparate walks of life. Some are marginalised immigrants from France's housing projects. Some are Muslims. Some are even adherents of the far-right. But Dieudonne's profile has soared since the gesture dubbed the "quenelle" went viral in recent months.

Interior Minister Manuel Valls called it an "inverted Nazi salute". He is exploring ways to ban gatherings he says threaten public order as a means of keeping the comic from performing.

But Dieudonne, who goes only by his first name, is adamant the quenelle - named after a fish dumpling eaten in some parts of the country - is an anti-establishment sign. Valls' critics caution that going after the comic has the whiff of a witch-hunt and fear it may endanger a fundamental right to freedom of speech.

Dieudonne, 47, has been convicted more than half a dozen times for inciting racial hatred or anti-Semitism over the years.

He was most recently convicted last autumn for using the word "Shoananas", a mix of the Hebrew word for Holocaust and the French word for pineapple, seen as making light of the Holocaust.

An investigation also opened this week after Dieudonne allegedly made an anti-Semitic slur towards a Jewish radio journalist. "When I hear [the journalist] talk, you see ... I say to myself gas chambers ... A pity," Dieudonne said during a performance last month, parts of which were shown on French TV.

Soccer star Nicolas Anelka used the quenelle recently to celebrate a goal, and basketball star Tony Parker did it years ago. Both said they did not understand it was an anti-Semitic gesture.

But a photo posted on French news sites shows a man doing the quenelle in front of the Jewish school in Toulouse where an Islamic extremist gunned down three children and a rabbi in March 2012.

Another showed two soldiers saluting in front of a Paris synagogue.

Sociologist Michel Wieviorka wrote a commentary in Thursday's Le Monde arguing Dieudonne's mixed-bag audience has a common denominator - anti-Semitism. "How does he please the nationalist extreme right as much as recently immigrated populations? The paradox is resolved [by] anti-Semitism, which ... brings together people that otherwise are separated by everything," he wrote.

The hand sign is ambiguous since it so closely resembles a "bras d'honneur", a vulgar gesture used in France that is the equivalent of giving the finger.