PARIS – A gesture popularized by a French comic — one hand pointing downward, the other touching the shoulder — has caught on like a dance move. But many see it as hateful and anti-Semitic. Now France’s top security official wants to ban him from the stage.
Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala has a small but faithful following of fans from disparate walks of life. Some are marginalized immigrants from France’s housing projects. Some are Muslims. Some are even adherents of the far-right.
Veteran Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld want people to “rise up” to protest against Dieudonne, 47.
“People who go to see Dieudonne go there to hear Jew-bashing,” said the Klarsfelds’ son, Arno. “He unites anti-Semites from all sides. They are Islamists, ultraleft or far-right. . . . His shows are anti-Semitic political rallies.”
Dieudonne’s profile has soared since the gesture, dubbed the “quenelle,” went viral in recent months.
To Interior Minister Manuel Valls, it is an “inverted Nazi salute.” He is exploring ways to ban gatherings he says threaten public order as a means of keeping the comic from performing.
But Dieudonne, who goes only by his first name (pronounced DYEU-dun-ay), is adamant that the quenelle — named for a fish dumpling eaten in some parts of the country — is an anti-establishment sign meaning “shove it.”
Valls’ critics caution that going after the comic has the whiff of a witch hunt and fear it may endanger a fundamental right to freedom of speech.
Dieudonne has been convicted more than half a dozen times for inciting racial hatred or anti-Semitism over the years.
He was most recently convicted last fall for using the word “Shoananas,” a mashup of the Hebrew word for Holocaust and the French word for pineapple, seen as making light of the Holocaust.
An investigation also opened last week after Dieudonne allegedly made an anti-Semitic slur toward a Jewish journalist on France-Inter radio. “When I hear him (the journalist) talk, you see . . . I say to myself ‘gas chambers. . . . A pity,’ ” Dieudonne said during a performance last month, parts of which were shown on French TV.
“I think 2014 will be the year of the quenelle,” Dieudonne said in a video posted on YouTube last week. In that video, he also denied he is anti-Semitic: “There’s a misunderstanding. I don’t say I won’t be one day. I leave that possibility open.”
Soccer star Nicolas Anelka used the quenelle recently to celebrate a goal, and basketball star Tony Parker did it years ago. Both said they did not understand it was an anti-Semitic gesture. Parker said in a mea culpa released by the San Antonio Spurs that he “thought it was part of a comedy act.”
But a photo posted on French news sites shows a man doing the quenelle in front of the Jewish school in Toulouse where an Islamic extremist gunned down three children and a rabbi in March 2012. Another showed two soldiers saluting in front of a Paris synagogue.
One photo shows the interior minister surrounded by youth doing the quenelle at a September inauguration, clearly without his knowledge.
The hand sign is ambiguous, since it so closely resembles a “bras d’honneur,” a vulgar gesture used in France that is the equivalent of giving the finger.
For the moment, the bid to silence Dieudonne looks like a tug of war between Valls and the comic. But Valls is getting support from some cities where shows are to be staged.
In Internet videos, the comic mocks the justice system, and his court losses, and calls on fans to donate to help his cause.
But the videos include sketches making light of the Holocaust. In one, Dieudonne portrays an American soldier getting a tour of Auschwitz from an inmate at the death camp. The video, washed in old-time sepia hues, is accompanied by the jingling music of a player piano.
Dieudonne originally rose to fame as part of a comedy duo with the noted Jewish comedian Elie Semoun. The two regularly parodied everyday racism and discrimination in France before they fell out.
Years later, Dieudonne befriended Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the far-right National Front party, who is godfather to one of his children.
An expert on the extreme right, Sylvain Crepon said he does not see Dieudonne as a major threat to public order. “I think he remains sociologically marginal,” Crepon said.