Skip to main content

Anti-Semitism row shines light on fractured French society

By John Sinnott and Sarah Holt, CNN
January 3, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
West Brom player Nicolas Anelka was banned and fined by the English Football Association for making an allegedly anti-Semitic gesture. The striker denied intending to cause any offense but the French government has criticized him. West Brom player Nicolas Anelka was banned and fined by the English Football Association for making an allegedly anti-Semitic gesture. The striker denied intending to cause any offense but the French government has criticized him.
HIDE CAPTION
What's in a gesture?
What's in a gesture?
What's in a gesture?
What's in a gesture?
What's in a gesture?
What's in a gesture?
What's in a gesture?
What's in a gesture?
What's in a gesture?
What's in a gesture?
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • French footballer Nicolas Anelka has caused a storm by using the "quenelle" gesture as a goal celebration
  • The gesture was created by controversial French comedian Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala
  • The quenelle has been linked to rising anti-Semitism in France
  • Figures from 2012 show a 59% rise in anti-Semitic attacks

(CNN) -- What's in a gesture?

A gesture of support for a friend, a gesture that is "anti-system," says French footballer Nicolas Anelka, who chose to celebrate his goal-scoring performance in an English Premier League game last weekend with a movement that has sparked controversy not just in the sporting world but also the political.

Known as the "quenelle," it involves pointing the right arm straight down and touching that arm with the left hand.

Anelka explained that Saturday's celebration was nothing more than a nod to his friend, controversial French comedian Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala, who has popularized the gesture in France.

But others believe the gesture is a Nazi salute in reverse, and it has been linked to rising anti-Semitism in France -- a charge over which Dieudonne faces an investigation by the Paris prosecutor's office.

Soccer clubs to strike over tax hike
Looking back at 150 years of soccer
Brazilian soccer star decapitated
Soccer star: Gay but lived stereotype

During a performance, Dieudonne said of a prominent Jewish journalist: "Me, you see, when I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I think to myself: 'Gas chambers ... too bad (they no longer exist)."

Whatever you think the "quenelle" is, Anelka and Dieudonne are provoking huge controversy on both sides of the English channel.

There have been demands that English football's governing body severely punishes the former France international forward. In France, Dieudonne's right to perform his controversial show has become a touchstone for "freedom of speech" advocates.

Fractured society

"This gesture was just a special dedication to my comedian friend Dieudonne," Anelka explained on his Twitter page as accusations of anti-Semitism seethed around him following the match between his club West Bromwich Albion and West Ham.

"(The) meaning (of) quenelle: anti-system. I do not know what the word religion has to do with this story!

"Of course, I am neither racist nor anti-Semitic."

Anelka is not the only sports star to be embroiled in controversy as photographs emerged of other French athletes -- basketball superstar Tony Parker plus footballers Samir Nasri and Mamadou Sakho, who like Anelka play in England -- making the "quenelle." All three have apologized for any offense caused.

But the furore has shone a light on signs of an increasingly fractious French society.

Daniel Makonnen, spokesman for LICRA -- International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism -- which is fighting fighting racial discrimination, told CNN that there was a 59% rise in anti-Semitic attacks in 2012.

According to the French Interior Ministry, there were 1,539 racist and anti-Semitic attacks in 2012, a rise of 22%.

He also explained that Anelka's use of the "quenelle" blurred the lines between what is anti-establishmentarianism and anti-Semitism.

"It is a way of Anelka boosting his image as a controversial person," Makonnen said.

"In France people are taking sides. Are you for or against establishment? The fact that Anelka is doing the quenelle...

Racism in Football: Part 1
Racism in Football: Part 2
Racism in Football: Part 3

"Originally it was used by Dieudonne in his first shows. But the 'quenelle' has been used in front of Auschwitz and in front of the (Jewish) school in Toulouse," added Makonnen, referring to the Ohr Torah school where three children and a teacher were murdered last year.

"If you look closer these people say they are willing to fight the system, but it's a system they say is controlled by Jewish people."

Powder keg

Philippe Auclair, the England correspondent of France Football magazine, said that Anelka and Nasri's support for anti-establishment views were very much in vogue in France.

"The idea that you are against the system invariably means that you are against anyone who disagrees with your point of view," he told CNN. "It has little to do with social or ethnic origin. You have young, white middle-class men and women saying the same thing.

"When I go back to France it is like there are two parallel universes; a government that is widely perceived as incompetent, with a social situation that is like a powder keg.

"Ultra-nationalism is on the rise and it has become completely acceptable to be openly anti-Semitic and to say that there is a global Zionist conspiracy."

Anelka also received short shrift from another French sports writer Erik Bielderman.

"Anelka portrays himself as an anti-establishment hero but this is an anti-establishment hero who is pictured emerging from his Rolls-Royce at the entrance to London Heliport and has appeared in an advert in France for the hamburger restaurant chain Quick," wrote Bielderman in Britain's Daily Mail newspaper.

Dieudonne congratulated Anelka on Twitter for using the "quenelle" to celebrate his goal against West Ham, which has a zero-tolerance policy on anti-Semitic chants at its stadium -- prompted by racist abuse the club's fans aimed at the supporters of London rival Tottenham in 2012.

Why so few South Asian footballers?
Balotelli: Racism makes me feel alone
Tackling racism in the stands

Read: Football grapples with anti-Semitism storm

The 46-year-old Dieudonne, who ran in the European elections as an anti-Zionist, has been fined several times in France for anti-Semitic commentary. The French government said this month it wants to ban his live performances.

"Dieudonne uses anti-Semitic discourse in his shows in the sense of fighting Zionism," Makonnen explained.

"He says he has Jewish friends. He is against Zionists who he says have power.

"He releases videos on YouTube and gets millions of views in 24 hours. YouTube is subject to American law. If those videos were published under French law those videos would be deleted.

"Dieudonne is very popular. He is very smart. People say it is hard to speak your mind in France because political power is too strong."

Meanwhile Anelka must wait to hear what the English Football Association decides to do.

"The club fully acknowledges that Nicolas' goal celebration has caused offense in some quarters and has asked Nicolas not to perform the gesture again. Nicolas immediately agreed to adhere to this request," his employer West Bromwich Albion said on Monday.

What's in a gesture? Anelka could yet find out to his cost.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
The U.S. government recognizes Kosovo, as do most European states, but getting football's ruling bodies to play ball has proved harder.
June 4, 2014 -- Updated 1504 GMT (2304 HKT)
National heroes don't always belong to one country. Ask France's World Cup hero Patrick Vieira, who is rediscovering his roots.
CNN's John Sinnott on the quiet Cambridge graduate behind Liverpool's resurgent campaign.
May 30, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
They are the dispossessed -- stateless, and unrecognized by football's ruling body. But these teams will still play at their own World Cup.
Louis van Gaal will be a perfect fit for Manchester United the club, business and brand, says CNN's Patrick Snell.
May 19, 2014 -- Updated 1924 GMT (0324 HKT)
There's a new force in Spanish football -- and Atletico Madrid's ascendance is sharply contrasted by the fall from power of Barcelona.
May 13, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Rubber bullets, drones and FBI-trained riot police. Welcome to Brazil's 2014 World Cup -- will protests overshadow football's showpiece event?
May 9, 2014 -- Updated 1318 GMT (2118 HKT)
The former England international, who famously kicked a banana off the pitch 27 years ago, says education is the key to tackling racism.
May 7, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Of course not. But former Fulham owner Mohamed Al Fayed seems to think the removal of Michael Jackson's statue was a very "bad" idea.
May 7, 2014 -- Updated 1603 GMT (0003 HKT)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 01: Neymar of Barcelona celebrates his goal during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final first leg match between FC Barcelona and Club Atletico de Madrid at Camp Nou on April 1, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
The Brazilian star's first season in Spain may have spluttered along, but the 22-year-old says he'll be firing on all cylinders at the World Cup.
April 30, 2014 -- Updated 1715 GMT (0115 HKT)
Former Soviet footballer Sergei Baltacha traveled from the land of the hammer and sickle to join The Tractor Boys and in doing so broke new ground.
April 29, 2014 -- Updated 0931 GMT (1731 HKT)
Brazil's Dani Alves arrived at Barcelona from Sevilla in 2008 and he has gone on to make over 180 appearances for the club.
Villarreal football supporter who threw a banana at Barcelona's Dani Alves during league match handed a life ban by the La Liga club.
ADVERTISEMENT