Nicolas Anelka celebrated his first two goals in a West Brom shirt against West Ham on December 28 with a gesture that would have been instantly recognisable in his native France but the connotations of which were more obscure in the UK. So is the quenelle (slang for penis, evoking an elongated Lyonnais dumpling) indelibly anti-Semitic, and did Anelka (and other French sportsmen to have performed it) have anti-Semitic intent? The answer to the first is “probably”, the answer to the second is inconclusive.
Unlike Paolo di Canio’s fascist salute, the quenelle is of a fairly recent vintage, owing its notoriety first and foremost to the man who devised it: Dieudonné. Born to a Cameroonian father and a Breton mother in 1966, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala started out as a counter-culture comedian on the anti-racist left. Around 2002 his act began to increasingly flirt with anti-Semitic tropes and he has long been persona non grata on French TV.
Dieudonné says he is “anti-Zionist” rather than anti-Semitic but, unlike many with a genuine investment in the Palestinian cause, he is not too concerned with putting daylight between himself and anti-Semitic figures. He has regularly appeared on stage with Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson and is close to the Front National far-right political party, to the extent that founder and former president Jean-Marie Le Pen is the godfather of two of his children.
Though shunned by the media, Dieudonné remains hugely popular and his fanbase ranges from kids of black and Arab origin to white far-right skinheads. The latter notwithstanding, it would be foolish to think all his fans are anti-Semites – and the vast majority would never in their wildest dreams vote for the Front National. Similarly, there is little overt connection between the trend for the quenelle among footballers and far-right hooliganism. If anything is really unsettling about Dieudonné’s fans, it is that they are so willing to overlook his obsession with Jews.
Dieudonné has many fans among French sports people. Those to be photographed backstage alongside the comedian doing the quenelle include NBA players Boris Diaw and Tony Parker, World and Olympic judo champion Teddy Riner and Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho. Sakho and Parker both protested they didn’t know the meaning of the gesture at the time, with the former saying he was cornered into doing it. Others have been more willing to publicise their gesture such as Samir Nasri who, like Anelka, denied the gesture has any anti-Semitic intent and accused media and politicians of trying to stir things up.
Anelka went further still, calling it an “anti-system” gesture, a familiar plea by Dieudonné fans. French websites had much amusement in the days that followed, assembling evidence of the striker’s supposed subversiveness from his many product endorsements and Instagram selfies alongside luxury cars and Rolexes. It is not surprising that Anelka has drawn more attention for his quenelle than others have, given his reputation on both sides of the Channel for being prickly. He did, after all, exile himself from the French national team for several years, missing three consecutive tournaments as a result, including the 2006 World Cup. Anelka was then sent home from South Africa in 2010 for telling coach Raymond Domenech to go fuck himself at half-time in the 2-0 defeat to Mexico. If ever there were a player to feel he is alone against the world, it is Anelka and he might see no contradiction between his own privileged lifestyle and sticking it to the Man.
The extent of his friendship with Dieudonné is uncertain – it surprised the French media. He claimed the quenelle was an act of solidarity with an embattled friend but he may be little more than a celebrity fan. If he is so close to Dieudonné, surely he would know of the comedian’s convictions for anti-Semitic incitement?
It might be that Anelka just does not have a very sophisticated reading of the whole affair. Dieudonné’s fans grumble that it is only the Jewish representative groups CRIF and LICRA that have decreed the quenelle to be anti-Semitic. But if you google “Pour ceux qui prétendent que la quenelle n’est pas un geste antisémit” you’ll find a disturbing gallery of photos of people performing it in front of synagogues, at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial (the French far-right author Alain Soral) and Auschwitz, among other places. It is probably this that Dieudonné has in mind when he gleefully says it has “taken on a life of its own”. While it may be an exaggeration to call the quenelle an exclusively neo-Nazi salute, it has enough dubious connotations by now for responsible people – footballers included – to give it a wide berth.
Originally published by When Saturday Comes (Print Edition, February 2014)