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Banning the quenelle: when humour isn’t funny

(Published in The Malay Mail on 6 February 2014)


I don’t know if you have been following the ‘quenelle’ row here in France and, more recently, in Britain.

Take a look at the front page of tabloid Le Parisien from last Wednesday (above). That’s the ‘quenelle’ being performed by a protestor in a recent anti-government demonstration in Paris. It’s almost a reverse Nazi salute, or, as my seven-year-old son innocently pointed out, like the “Hail Caesar” salute the Romans use in his Astérix cartoon books. He’s keen to show me how it’s done; knowing full well that it provokes a stern reaction.

But this is no joking matter, contrary to what its creator the French comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala would have you believe. I think the quenelle is an abhorrent hand gesture that smacks of anti-Semitism, and Britain and France are right to take a firm stance against it. Some argue that it’s only a variant of the Nazi salute — the arm is pointing down (not straight up) with the opposite hand placed on the shoulder— and therefore harmless. I don’t buy this, nor the line that it’s simply an “up yours” anti-establishment sign as Dieudonné maintains.

There is a reason why Germany has banned the Nazi salute, or variants of, and deemed it a criminal offence carrying a maximum three-year-prison sentence. And Israel’s government has just circulated draft legislation that bans the use of the word ‘Nazi’. Both are keen to stem the rising tide of anti-Semitism around the world.

Any time, anywhere, is ripe for a quenelle here in France: weddings, high school classes, comedy shows and in front of synagogues (two ‘on duty’ French soldiers were caught doing just that in September). It’s assumed a “hey, I’m cool” veneer, like the playful ‘V’ finger sign kids do while posing for photos. It’s even got a Wikipedia page, the “Quenelle gesture”, which distinguishes it from the original “Quenelle” entry: the French name for a fish dumpling.

Like ‘planking’ , or the ‘Facebook Neknomination’, the French quenelle has become the new ‘craze’ on the block, carrying with it the potential to result in tragedy.

Do these quenelle-toting craze followers think about the six million followers of the Jewish faith who died as a consequence of everything this hand gesture stands for? Are the high school kids aware of its link with Nazism? Do they see the irony of their ridiculous salutes and the ceremonies held across the world last week to mark the International Holocaust Remembrance Day?

Talking of irony, the one person who is not giving the quenelle is its creator. France’s interior minister Manual Valls banned Dieudonné from using it in his shows on the grounds that “inciting racial hatred” is illegal in France. And on Monday, Britain rightly banned him for entering the country where he was heading to support the French footballer Nicolas Anelka of West Bromich Albion. The striker is facing a minimum five match ban by England’s Football Association for his goal scoring ‘quenelle’ in the Premier League match against West Ham in late December.

I don’t think Dieudonné has much to worry about; I imagine him busier than ever, rubbing his chastised hands together, eyes flashing Euro notes, reaping the massive boost to his popularity gained from the free publicity. While one French TV channel secretly videoed him expressing strong anti-Semitic views in the form of his infamous “joke”: “When I hear Patrick Cohen (French Jewish journalist) talking, I think to myself, the gas chambers, what a pity,” I believe his true motivation is more Machiavellian: a dual desire to be idolized and to make money.

Cashing in on the opportunity France’s “La Crise Profonde” (economic woes) presents, he’s made himself, armed with his trademark quenelle, a vent for France’s disenfranchised — the one-in-four young unemployed, marginalized ethic minorities, the anti-same sex marriage crowd — that largely form his fan base. Some say he is the new face of the National Front, the far-right party led by Marine Le Pen that’s gaining traction in the wake of François Hollande’s deep unpopularity.

I recently read about the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, where Hitler’s elite SS troops massacred 642 innocent people, shooting the men they rounded up first, followed by the women and children who were herded into a church which was set alight. The village, 4-hours-drive south of Paris, remains untouched these last 60 years serving as a memorial to those that died, a stark reminder of the depravity of the Nazis and the savagery of the Jewish genocide.

Perhaps Dieudonné and his pack of quenelle-givers should take a trip there; would they then see any humorous side?

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