Home > Culture, Current Affairs, Politics, Sports > The Significant Complexities of an Errant Quenelle (And Other Words About French Things)

The Significant Complexities of an Errant Quenelle (And Other Words About French Things)

Something very interesting, rather odd, and slightly complex has unfolded on the margins of international football’s richest league over the past month of so. To understand its intricate, sometimes self-contradictory workings, a bit of explicating is necessary. If you can stay with me, I’ll try to help it make sense, although I must warn you that it involves the confusing politics of the European hard right, questionable Continental humour, fisting references, several French people, and, most terrifying of all, a football club from Birmingham, England.

After scoring a goal against West Ham United in a Premier League match on December 28th, West Bromwich Albion striker Nicolas Anelka performed a celebratory gesture that was slightly obscure to many English spectators and surely wholly unintelligible to North American observers. With one arm pointed diagonally downwards, palm open, Anelka touched that arm’s shoulder with his other hand. On its surface, as you can see in the photo below, it seems a pretty innocuous gesture, especially as far as famously flamboyant professional football goals celebrations go.

But below the surface lay darker associations. The gesture is referred to as a “quenelle”, and is anything but innocuous, regardless of how it might be interpreted. Invented by French-Cameroonian comedian and political activist Dieudonné M’bala M’bala and now widely considered his trademark, the quenelle is a rude French working-class equivalent of flipping the bird or, more specifically, of the expression “up yours”. I leave it up to your curiosity to trace the convoluted connections of the name (which is actually a seafood dish) to the gesture and its implications (fisting, pretty much) in the Wikipedia link, if you will. Suffice it to say that it’s popularly associated with Dieudonné and his outspoken views, and Anelka is a friend of his who offered the gesture as a tribute and/or expression of support.

Dieudonné requires expressions of support, you see, because he’s often accused of flirting with antisemitism in his comedy and public statements. Although he rose to prominence with a Jewish comedian partner and ran for office against Jean-Marie Le Pen‘s quasi-fascist right-wing political party, the National Front, Dieudonné has since migrated closer to the socially-conservative, anti-immigrant, and often racist rightist popular movement in France. In addition to rapprochement with former adversary Le Pen (who is godfather to one of the comedian’s daughters), Dieudonné has depicted an Israeli settler as a Nazi on television, referred to the Holocaust as “memorial pornography” and has invited deniers to appears at his shows, and suggested it was a pity a Jewish journalist critical of him was not sent to the gas chambers. After being convicted on antisemitism charges eight times, Dieudonné has seen his live shows banned across France. To say he’s a controversial figure is, as you can imagine, a bit of an understatement.

Now, the quenelle is arguably not overtly antisemitic in intent or symbolism, though critics have suggested (imaginatively) that it does resemble an inverted Nazi salute. Dieudonné generally argues that it is an anti-establishment gesture, and it was on these grounds that Anelka has also defended it since the English FA charged him for making it against West Ham. “Up yours, oppressive system!” is the meaning suggested by its creator. The problem is that Dieudonné has become so closely associated with antisemitic statements (anti-Zionist, he claims, if there’s a meaningful distinction to be found) that it requires considerable mental effort to avoid the conclusion that the “system” being criticized so crudely and sexually in this gesture is not melded with conspiratorial conceptions of secretive Jewish power-brokers straight out of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The political messaging and the source of it would seem so deeply incongruous as to baffle North American observers. Far right antisemitic sympathies are not unknown on this side of the pond, but they are rarely if ever upheld by anyone but self-conceived Aryans. Why – how – can these protectionist views be held by a mixed-race Frenchman of half-African descent, a direct product of immigrants himself and an inferior subhuman under the aegis of the Nazi-derived Aryan ideology that he’s irresponsibly flirting with? To what extent do Anelka and Dieudonné’s legions of fans and supporters understand the implications of this flirtation, of the volatile “jokes” he engages in, and how much is their repetition of the statement a simple act of aggressive, supposed rebellion? And how much is Dieudonné seeking to satirize social and cultural sensitivity about taboo subjects, a time-honoured staple of edgy comedy product? Most vitally, is he succeeding at that?

The complex, simmering tensions in contemporary European society are writ large here, no doubt. Immigration from outside the continent has transformed long-insular societies like France’s into uncomfortable mosaics and strained its institutions and deepest ideals, sometimes beyond the breaking point, as seen in the intermittent banlieue riots, particularly those in Paris in 2005. But football has, in recent decades, provided a blueprint for an ideal of microcosmic cooperative efforts between Gauls of disparate ethnic backgrounds. Indeed, the country’s greatest recent sporting triumph, the 1998 World Cup title, was won by a team led by a midfield wizard of Algerian descent and featured many black Frenchmen in prominent roles. How symptomatic of a reactionary and uncertain political moment in French history that football now instead provides a confused and disturbing opportunity to express confused and disturbing ideas in the mass sphere.

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