French comedian’s straight-armed gesture provokes charges of anti-Semitism

PARIS (RNS) Sacha Reingewirtz hears it on the streets sometimes, a crude riff on an old variety tune. The song “Shoah Nanas” – or “Holocaust Pineapples” – went viral on the Internet not long ago, one of many jabs against Jews by 46-year-old French comic Dieudonne M’bala M’bala.

These days Dieudonne, who goes by his first name, is kicking up fresh controversy with another creation: a straight-armed signal he has tagged the “quenelle.” Borrowing the name of a regional dish, the gesture has turned up on football fields and in mocking photos snapped outside Jewish institutions and a Holocaust memorial. Dieudonne claims it’s anti-establishment, not anti-Semitic; Jewish groups liken it to a Nazi salute.

Now, as the French government moves to crack down on Dieudonne, it is confronting a raft of challenges — from traditional free speech concerns to an arguably new brand of anti-Semitism embraced by Muslim immigrants and ardent French nationalists alike. Even if officials can stop the comic’s performances in theaters, which they are trying to do, Dieudonne draws a massive audience online.

“The Internet offers a springboard for Dieudonne and his supporters,” said Reingewirtz, president of the French Union of Jewish Students. The union sued Twitter last year for failing to better control anti-Semitic tweets. It is now asking YouTube to remove Dieudonne’s performances from its site, Reingewirtz said.

“Dieudonne’s videos are being viewed by over 2 million users,” he added. “And this is really phenomenal.”

French authorities appear to be winning the first round. As Dieudonne begins a national tour this week, several municipalities have banned his one-man show, “The Wall,” following a government call to do so on public order grounds.

“No one can use a performance for the goals of provocation and the promotion of overly anti-Semitic theories,” President Francois Hollande said Tuesday (Jan. 7), without specifically mentioning the performer.

France remains haunted by memories of its wartime past — along with more recent attacks against the country’s roughly 600,000-strong Jewish community. Jewish groups hailed the government’s swift action.

“The atmosphere that Dieudonne creates contributes to violence because it spreads in the minds of weak people,” said Roger Cukierman, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France, an umbrella group of French Jewish organizations. “We have to stop it by all means.”

But others say authorities are going too far. Some suggest the governing and unpopular Socialists are trying to deflect attention from upcoming elections. The French Human Rights League has warned against “pre-emptive bans with a shaky legal foundation.” And lawyers for Dieudonne — who has managed to dodge hefty fines for previous hate-speech convictions — are threatening legal action on free-expression grounds.

“You don’t need a 10-ton machine to fight against a fly,” said sociologist Michel Wieviorka, who believes both the government and the media are overreacting. “Dieudonne exists because of the people who listen to him, and who want to listen to him. And that is the real problem.”

The quenelle has traveled far beyond Dieudonne’s shows. Sports figures Nicolas Anelka and Tony Parker have made the gesture, although both subsequently apologized, saying they didn’t realize its meaning. Far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, the godfather of one of Dieudonne’s children, has also used the gesture. Quenelle gestures have also taken place in front of Holocaust sites and a school in Toulouse, where an Islamist extremist gunned down several Jews in 2012.

“It’s a very strange situation, a kind of melting pot,” Wieviorka said of Dieudonne’s fans. “Some of them are nationalist, extreme right, Catholic, very French. And some are immigrants and very critical of the French idea of a nation.”

It’s a melting pot that Wieviorka believes is helping shape a new manifestation of anti-Semitism in France, home to Europe’s largest populations of Jews and Muslims. “This new anti-Semitism is not saying that Jews are destroying the French nation,” he said. “This new anti-Semitism is much more saying that Jews are hostile to Arabs, to Muslims, to Islam.”

But Dieudonne defies easy stereotypes. Of French-Cameroonian descent, he scored fame in the 1990s in a double act with Jewish comedian Elie Semoun that tackled anti-Semitism and racism. The two later fell out and Dieudonne tilted toward the political right. In 2009, he ran for European Union parliamentary elections on an anti-Zionist platform, capturing a minuscule slice of the vote.

His blustering sketches, which also skewer gays and Muslims, send audiences roaring. Fans, including leftist students, praise him for poking fun at serious subjects. Some question claims he is anti-Semitic.

But Reingewirtz sees nothing new about Dieudonne. The only difference, he believes, is the context.

“He’s using new forms of expression via the Internet, but his argument is a very classic type of anti-Semitism,” Reingewirtz said. “People are frightened about their jobs, about the economy. And Dieudonne is saying, ‘Look no further; the Jews are guilty of everything.’ And it works very well.”