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French comedian's gesture divides a nation

Entertainer's work leaves some wondering if country's youth have forgotten plight of Jews

by Kim Willsher

The Observer

On Jan 12, 1944, the Gestapo occupying the French city of Bordeaux despatched its Jews, who had been rounded up and imprisoned in their own majestic synagogue, to the death camps.

Fast-forward exactly 70 years and a photograph shows a group of youngsters standing outside the same synagogue, performing the now infamous “quenelle” gesture invented by the controversial French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala in 2005 and exported to Britain by soccer player Nicolas Anelka.

The backdrop of the picture is a large stone plaque engraved A Nos Martyrs (to our martyrs) and bearing the names of the 365 people deported from inside the synagogue. In all, 5,000 Bordeaux Jews — out of a community of 6,200 — perished at the hands of the Nazis.

On the busy Sainte Catherine shopping street nearby, youngsters sitting on the steps near the synagogue entrance eating sandwiches shrug when asked about the quenelle and what it means.

“It is anti-establishment, funny. It’s a laugh,” they said. Ambiguous? “Oui.” Provocative? “Oui.” Anti-Semitic? “Non.” So why the quenelles outside synagogues, at Auschwitz, in front of the Jewish school where Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah killed three children, by signs for rue du Four (oven street) and rue des Juifs (Jews’ street) and in front of the train wagons that transported French Jews to the concentration camps? Are Jews “establishment?” Silence and shrugs.

“There are lots of pictures of quenelles done in other, non-Jewish, places,” piped up one youth. And he is right. There are.

To some, the gesture is simply the Gallic equivalent of a cheeky two fingers to the system. To others, it is a deeply offensive mockery of the Holocaust and Jewish suffering, and a symbol of a new wave of anti-Semitism in France.

At the heart of the divide is Dieudonne, a controversial comic who claims his quenelle was never intended to be anti-Semitic, but who has never distanced himself from those who have made it so (except to threaten with his lawyers anyone who likens it to a Nazi salute).

Now campaigners in Bordeaux have launched a test case to force the courts to rule whether “targeted quenelles”— those clearly aimed at Jewish institutions or sites — constitute an illegal “insult of a racist nature.”

City police last week opened an investigation aimed at identifying the people pictured outside the synagogue, and bringing the culprits before a judge.

Clotilde Chapieu, head of the Bordeaux branch of the Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et l’Antisemitisme, which brought the lawsuit, welcomed the move.

“Enough is enough,” Chapieu told The Guardian last week. “We’ve been tolerant for a long time: now it has to stop. The quenelle ceased being an anti-system gesture a long time ago, if it ever was. It is anti-semitic. And where it is clearly anti-Semitic — as it is in the photos — then it has to stop.

“If the court decides it’s a racist insult, we have won. It will send a message to young people that the republic doesn’t compromise over its values, that there’s no impunity for those who make this gesture in specific places and situations who are breaking the law. Anti-Semitism isn’t an opinion — it’s a crime.

“My biggest concern is for young people, who are having the seed of prejudice, of racism and anti-Semitism, planted in their minds by Dieudonne.

“Free speech has its limits and we’ve seen where tolerance and freedom of expression have got us. Four years ago, when Dieudonne came to Bordeaux, he had a small tour bus, three years ago there was a crowd of 900 fans, and last year there were 4,000 of them. He is playing with our democracy.”

Bordeaux was one of the dates on Dieudonne’s national tour, which was due to start last week, but the city’s mayor, former center-right Prime Minister Alain Juppe, banned the show within hours of receiving a circular, from Interior Minister Manuel Valls, encouraging local officials to stop the shows for the sake of maintaining public order.

“People are free to dislike Jews or Muslims or anyone, but they cannot say things that incite hatred,” insisted Chapieu. “The legal case is breaking new ground because the offense of inciting racial hatred covers just the spoken and written word, not gestures. But if you stick a finger up at a police officer, you will get charged with causing offense, so there is a precedent. And if a quenelle is done in front of a synagogue or a Holocaust memorial, it’s clearly anti-Semitic.”

Dieudonne fans revere him as an almost gurulike figure. They are a mixed bunch spanning social and economic groups, from far-right supporters (Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the Front National party, is godfather to one of the comic’s daughters) and fundamentalist Muslims, to those who think he is the target of a global American-Zionist conspiracy backed by the media, and those described by French political scientist Jean-Yves Camus as “confused youngsters who have lost any sense of human values.”

“Ah, but does anyone ask what made Dieudonne anti-Semitic . . . if he is anti-Semitic . . . which I don’t believe he is,” was the essence of one exchange with a young devotee, summing up the confusion and contradictions highlighted by Camus. He says Dieudonne fans have a tendency to fall back on the old anti-Semitic rhetoric and stereotypes, including “the conviction that deep down it is the Jews who pull the strings.”

On the other side of the divide are ranged French President Francois Hollande, his Socialist administration, multifaith organizations, including representatives from the Jewish, Muslim, and Catholic religions, and anti-racist groups.

Civil-liberties groups and those concerned about censorship and the upholding of freedom of speech are stuck in the middle. They fear banning Dieudonne will turn him into a celebrity martyr and give a mediocre comedian the oxygen of publicity. The number of Twitter followers, Facebook likes and YouTube hits amassed by Dieudonne has soared since the quenelle scandal erupted.

In Bordeaux, Erick Aouizerate, president of the regional Israelite Cultural Association, pointed to the plaque outside the synagogue bearing the deportees’ names. “It is exactly 70 years since our synagogue was sacked and pillaged and 365 people were sent to the death camps. To make the gesture in front of that is to violate the memory of those who died,” he said.

“The young people in these photographs have clearly forgotten or not been taught the history of their country and the values of the republic. We had a revolution to win our liberty, to win free speech. But even so, there are limits.”