A new gesture called the “quenelle” has been making its way into the pictures of French adolescents, writers, and footballers alike. The quenelle is almost militaristic in appearance, and unlike typical poses such as the thumbs up, it carries an implicit political message, though the meaning of that message is still unclear. It has been adopted by a vast swath of French society, posed in pictures with right arms pointing directly at the ground, fingers outstretched, elbow fully flexed, and with the left elbow bent at a forty-five degree angle, fingertips resting on the shoulder. Some find the gesture eerily reminiscent of an inverted Nazi salute, while many (including the gesture’s inventor) claim that the bent arm is simply to indicate the length of the straight arm that would be inserted into the behind of the “establishment.”
The quenelle was conceived and made famous by the controversial French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, borrowing its name from the traditional French dumpling. The actor, comedian, and political activist is known for his anti-Zionist stances, which often overlap with full-fledged anti-Semitism. Many of his comedy routines reference and make light of the Holocaust, as well as speak hatefully against prominent French Jews, such as his vitriolic comment, “Me, you see, when I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I think to myself: ‘Gas chambers … too bad (they no longer exist).’”
Dieudonne’s anti-semitic views contribute to the controversy surrounding the quenelle, and his well-established beliefs may be part of what has led to its apparent use in targeting of Jewish segments of French society. Indeed, although the gesture is often defended as being “anti-system” or “anti-establishment,” there has been an unmistakable trend in the photos featuring the quenelle with people performing the symbol in front of synagogues, along with other prominent Holocaust landmarks, Jewish institutions, and Auschwitz. Inevitably this leads many to interpret the quenelle as an undeniable expression of anti-Semitism.
Although the people in these photos are creating a clear context for the anti-Semitic connotation for the quenelle, its “true” meaning remains ambiguous. After all, when a gesture is invented out of thin air, its connotations are inherently vague, and there is a lot of space for interpretation regarding exactly what it may represent. In fact, the very people who are employing the quenelle don’t seem to have come to a consensus. While in some photos the background or subject of the photo seems to have specifically Jewish connotations, others view the sign to be a revamped expression of the ever-present sentiment “up yours,” no more offensive than a middle finger and certainly not tied to any manifestation of religious hatred.
This ambiguity surrounding the quenelle makes it difficult for the French government and other governments across Europe to respond. Increasingly, however, in official contexts the quenelle is being deemed an inappropriate and disallowable expression. The Football Association’s regulatory commitment recently declared that the West Bromwich Albion player Nicolas Anelka would be banned for five matches as a punishment for performing the quenelle after scoring in their match against West Ham United on December 28, 2013. Dieudonne’s notoriously anti-Semitic comedy performance has been cancelled in France, and Britain’s Home Office has even gone so far as to ban Dieudonne from entering the country, claiming that for “public policy and public security,” he is forbidden to step foot on British soil.
The question facing public officials is where to draw the line. As Simon Jenkins states in his Guardian opinion piece responding to the British decision, “A robust community can handle the stresses of pluralism. It can take on board, challenge and defeat odious opinions without having to take refuge in law or state authority.” Free speech advocates throughout Europe contend that the established strength of these countries should be able to endure prejudice. Others insist that it is the role of the government of a democratic nation to prevent these kinds of hateful intolerances. Without a well-defined meaning or intention, the possibility for misappropriation of a new symbol or the chance of its connection to a hateful cause is far greater. This begs the question: when does the association with anti-Semitism make the gesture a pointed and venomous sign rather than a perhaps distasteful but harmless motion? How often does the quenelle need to be performed in front of a Holocaust memorial before it becomes irrevocably bound to religious and cultural intolerance?