Up until recently, the ‘quenelle’ was a gesture little known in the UK. That is, until Nicolas Anelka used it a celebratory gesture following his goal scored last weekend. This event pushed the quenelle into the public eye, given the immediate reaction and ensuing frenzied media coverage. The French minister for Sport, Valérie Fourneyron, immediately reacted on Twitter, by calling it a ‘shocking and sickening provocation.’ It was equally condemned by her right-wing counterpart, Chantal Jouanno, who demanded sanctions be put in place against the man who invented and popularized the gesture; Dieudonné M’bala M’bala.
Dieudonné M’bala M’bala
Dieudonné’s image has changed radically over the years. He started his career as part of a double act with the Jewish comedian Élie Semoun and was initially active on the far-left. His rhetoric has become increasingly right-wing over the years and now it is rumoured that Jean-Marie Le Pen is the godfather to one of his children. He openly declared his support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and is the director of Les Ogres website, which denies the official version of the events on 9/11. In 2009, he ran in the European Parliamentary Elections, as one of the candidates for the Île de France region. He described his party as ‘anti-communitarist and anti-Zionist.’ He scored 1.30% of the vote. Jean-Yves Camus, a French academic who specializes in the French far right, told The Independent that the quenelle has become the symbol of a movement headed by Dieudonné which is convinced that the world is run by Washington and Tel-Aviv.
The meaning of the word quenelle has been distorted. It was originally known as denoting a creamed fish or chicken dumpling, specific to the Lyon and Nantuan regions of France.
Now Dieudonné describes it as a gesture of ‘popular emancipation,’ of ‘defiance,’ a quick and precise way to show that you are ‘anti-system,’ but, given his history of anti-Semitic comments and slurs, many believe it represents a reverse ‘Heil Hitler,’ a scarcely disguised anti-Jewish hate gesture.
Two unknown French soldiers performing the quenelle gesture as popularized by Dieudonné.
Dieudonné has been repeatedly fined large sums of money by the French authorities over previous statements he has made regarding Judaism. In 2006, he was fined 4,500 euros for referring to a Jewish television presenter as ‘a secret donor of the child-murdering Israeli army.’ In 2008, he was fined 7,000 euros for characterizing the Holocaust commemorations as ‘memorial pornography.’ In 2010, he was fined 10,000 euros for defamation of the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, for describing them as a ‘mafia-like organization that organizes censorship.’
While it is only Anelka’s use of the gesture which raised awareness of it in Britain, in France, Dieudonné, and the quenelle are becoming very well-known. The French authorities are currently investigating him once again over anti-Semitic comments. Whilst talking about the journalist Patrick Cohen, who works for France Inter, he said; ‘Quand je l’entends parler, Patrick Cohen, je me dis, tu vois, les chambres à gaz…dommage.’ (When I hear him speak, Patrick Cohen, I think to myself, you see, gaz chambers…what a shame (that they no longer exist)).
It was this incident that was supposedly the last straw for the Interior Minister, Manuel Vals, who has announced he will try and ban Dieudonné from performing in public, on the basis that his shows would be a threat to public order. In the past few days, he has depicted Dieudonné as ‘possessed by the hatred of the Jew,’ and a Holocaust denier. He is being supported by François Hollande in his actions.
Yet, tickets for Dieudonné’s shows regularly are priced above 40 euros, and are often sold out. When he goes on tour, he does it the biggest theatres in France. An article in Le Monde (31.12.13) pointed out that; ‘Si on veut transformer le paria en héros, le victimiser, en faire une sorte de martyr, il faut interdire les spectacles de M.M’bala M’bala.’ (If we want to turn the pariah into a hero, victimise him, make him into a kind of martyr, we should ban Mr. M’bala M’bala’s shows.’)
Why is Dieudonné popular? In a France that currently suffers, that has little confidence in its executive, Dieudonné may appear to some as a man of conviction, strong views, and clear responses. An illuminating article on the French website Rue 89 (http://www.rue89.com/2014/01/02/quenelle-nabil-perd-emploi-sans-comprendre-pourquoi-248704) interviews Nabil, a disaffected young man, formerly a child worker who was fired late last year after he posted a picture to his Facebook account of him posing with young children doing a quenelle. He says;
‘J’ai ouvert les yeux, avant j’étais un mouton. J’ai voté Mélenchon au premier tour parce que je trouvais ça bien que les riches paient pour les pauvres. Et Hollande au second parce que depuis tout petit, on me répète que les socialistes aident les jeunes des quartiers, mais c’était n’importe quoi.’
(‘My eyes have been opened, before I was a sheep. I voted for Mélenchon in the first round because I thought it was a good idea that the rich pay for the poor. And for Hollande in the second round because since I was very small, it’s been repeated to me that the Socialists help the youth, but that’s ridiculous.’)
This discontentment with the system is what many young see the quenelle as representing. Now, Nabil is considering voting for the far right at the next elections. He identifies strongly with Dieudonné’s supposedly anti-system message, employing his phrase ‘la graduation des souffrances,’ (the graduation of suffering) when recalling his recent experiences. He dismisses those who have been captured on camera making the quenelle gesture in front of Auschwitz and Anne Frank’s memorial as people who haven’t understood Dieudonné’s agenda. Above all, he saw the quenelle as a joke.