Commentary Magazine


France Acts, England Dithers, Over “Quenelle” Salute

Thanks in large part to the efforts of French Interior Minister Manuel Valls, Dieudonné, the anti-Semitic French propagandist who describes himself as a comedian, is finally on the defensive. Last week, as thousands of enthusiasts turned up for one of his shows in the city of Nantes–as can be seen in the photos here, many of them were hipsters making the quenelle, the inverted Nazi salute which Dieudonné devised–Valls successfully appealed to France’s Council of State to shut down the performance.

Mindful that Dieudonné has already racked up seven convictions for anti-Semitic hate speech–including one last year following a media interview in which he stated, “the biggest crooks in the world, that’s the Jews”–Valls deemed that “peddlers of hate stop at nothing and show boundless creativity … the status quo is not a solution.” As a direct result of the ban, Dieudonné has announced that he is working on a new show with completely different material (about Africa, according to Reuters) adding somewhat obliquely, “as a comedian, I have pushed the debate to the very edge of laughter.”

The parameters of this “debate” are efficiently summarized by the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, writing in the Daily Beast:

…the only form of anti-Semitism with legs today, the only form capable of taking in and galvanizing large numbers of people, is one that accomplishes the trifecta of anti-Zionism (Jews as supporters of an allegedly murderous state), Holocaust denial (an unscrupulous people who, in pursuit of their purposes, are capable of inventing or staging the slaughter of their own), and competitive victimhood (memory of the Holocaust as a screen to hide other massacres on the planet). Well, Dieudonné was in the process of tying these strands together. With his accomplice, French right-wing extremist Alain Soral, he was a sapper assembling his explosive device and preparing to set it off.

Inevitably, the ban has set off concerns about the limits of free speech in France. If Dieudonné were performing in America, the First Amendment would guarantee his right to be as offensive as he wishes. Yet as Lévy pointed out in an interview with the newspaper Le Parisien, available in English here, the basis for the French government’s decision was not some abstract conception of what constitutes offensive speech, but a concrete appraisal of the country’s existing laws against Holocaust denial and racist incitement–both of which have been engaged in by Dieudonné. Indeed, after years of indulging his performances, the French government finally decided, as Lévy put it, that its “duty…was to say ‘enough!’ It does not, though, logically follow that other provocateurs in France will be similarly silenced. “There isn’t a serious judge in France,” Lévy argued, “who would say: ‘Having convicted X for defiling the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, I will now convict Y for making fun of Minister Smith and Minister Jones’.”

The same determination to clearly identify the problem that Dieudonné represents appears, sadly, to be absent across the English Channel. It was not in France, but during an English soccer match that the latest scandal around Dieudonné first emerged.

On December 28, Nicolas Anelka, a French Muslim striker who plays for Premier League side West Bromwich Albion, celebrated one of the two goals he scored against West Ham United by giving the quenelle salute. It was a gesture seen by millions all over the world, including in the United States, where Premier League games are now broadcast on NBC. In the game’s immediate aftermath, representatives of the Jewish community and anti-racist activists filed complaints with the Football Association (FA) the governing body of English soccer, urging that Anelka be appropriately disciplined.

Soon after, Anelka confirmed that he would not make the quenelle again–he had, after all, already made his point–explaining that he had engaged in the gesture as a mark of solidarity with his personal friend, Dieudonné. Notably, Anelka did not apologize or express any regret over his action. The FA, meanwhile, has remained disturbingly silent. More than two weeks after Anelka gave his quenelle, the FA has made no substantive comment on the incident, save for saying that it has retained an expert to examine the issue and that an update can be expected on January 20 at the earliest.

According to Kick it Out, an organization combating racism in English soccer, the FA’s reluctance to issue an immediate condemnation has led to “criticism, particularly from community organizations, who feel deeply and rightly aggrieved by the gesture.” Now it can be pointed out, in the FA’s defense that the disciplinary process for two players who were convicted of racially abusing black opponents during the previous Premier League season also dragged on for several months. However, in one of those cases, the FA’s room for maneuver was held up because of a simultaneous criminal trial, while in the other, conflicting evidence given by witnesses meant that the Association had to proceed extremely carefully. By contrast, there is no doubt that Anelka gave the quenelle, nor that he did so in order to support a man who has arguably become Europe’s leading anti-Semite.

There will be much speculation as to why the FA has been so slow to move against Anelka. It will certainly have crossed their minds that Anelka could, as a Muslim, allege that he is being singled out for special opprobrium. It is also possible that some FA officials have been seduced by the nonsense that the quenelle is merely an “anti-establishment” gesture, and cannot therefore be explicitly tied to anti-Semitism.

If the FA has any mettle, it will understand that the evidence built up against Dieudonné in France can be used against Anelka in England. And its verdict should be as decisive as in the racism cases I mentioned earlier, in which both players were heavily fined and subjected to lengthy match bans. Anelka deserves no less.

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