The sad reputation of British soccer as one of the last redoubts of institutionalized racism in the United Kingdom was given an unwelcome boost over the weekend when the former French international player Nicolas Anelka performed an alleged neo-Nazi salute—called the ‘quenelle’— in celebration after scoring a goal at his British club, West Bromwich Albion. Anelka has denied the gesture was offensively intended and said on Twitter that he did it merely as a ‘special dedication’ to his friend, the controversial French comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala.
The quenelle was indeed invented by M'bala, but quite why Anelka should think it acceptable to demonstrate his solidarity with a convicted anti-Semite on the public arena of the football field can only be guessed at. M’bala has been convicted in court in France seven times for anti-Semitic and racial hatred crimes, and the website France24 is now reporting that Paris prosecutors launched a fresh probe yesterday to determine whether M’Bala broke French laws by joking about “gas chambers” while talking about a Jewish journalist at a December 19 performance.
Quenelle is in fact the French word for a meat or fish dumpling, and the gesture was named for a remark M’bala once made when he said he wanted to put a ‘quenelle’ up the backside of Zionists.
The gesture consists of pointing one arm diagonally down at the floor while touching the shoulder of that arm with the index finger of the other hand. Critics say it is a masked Nazi salute, but M’bala claims it is simply an anti-establishment symbol of his own devising. M’bala took to hashtagging his Tweets at the weekend with a French phrase, meaning, “The quenelle is neither a Nazi or anti-Semitic sign.”
However, even if one accepts M’bala’s rather implausible defense that he did simply invent the gesture as an anti-establishment statement, what is undoubtedly true is that the quenelle was quickly seized on by neo-Nazis, and has become for them a useful replacement for the Nazi salute, which is now banned across much of Europe under racial hatred laws. The gesture became widely known in France after a September 2013 photograph of two French soldiers on duty doing a quenelle in front of a Paris synagogue went viral. (The controversy has even spread to the U.S., where San Antonio Spurs player Tony Parker, another pal of Dieudonné, apologized yesterday after a picture surfaced of himself and the comedian giving the quenelle sign.)
Anelka took to Twitter to defend himself after a firestorm of criticism broke over the weekend. “This gesture was just a special dedication to my comedian friend Dieudonné,” he wrote, before adding, in French, “Signification de quenelle: anti-système.” Anelka later Tweeted (in French), “With regard to those who give their own interpretaion of my quenelle, they are the ones that create confusion and controversy without knowing what this gesture really means. I therefore ask people not to be duped by the media. And of course, I am neither racist nor anti-Semitic.”
French academic and far-right expert Jean-Yves Camus, in an interview in French left-wing newspaper Libération, 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.”
French minister for sport Valérie Fourneyron called Anelka’s actions “shocking” and “disgusting,” adding: “There’s no place for anti-Semitism on the football field.”
West Bromwich Albion said Anelka “strongly denied intending to cause offence,” according to the club, and has “agreed” with their request “not to perform the gesture again” and “will remain under consideration for first-team selection whilst the FA and club continue their enquiries.”