The row over the “quenelle” gesture deepened today after it emerged that a picture had been posted on the internet of a man making the reportedly anti-Semitic hand signal in front of a Toulouse school where three Jewish children were murdered.
The public prosecutor in Toulouse has ordered police to trace the young man who performed the gesture – which is half-inverted Hitler salute and half-traditional French insult - outside the school where three small children and a rabbi were shot dead by the “scooter killer” Mohamed Merah in March 2012.
The image, which was first posted on the Internet two weeks ago, will inflame an already heated debate in France and in Britain over the “quenelle”. The gesture was invented by the black, French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’Bala four years ago and performed during a Premier League football match last Saturday by the French footballer Nicolas Anelka.
Both men say that the gesture is “anti-system” or “anti-estabishment” rather than anti-Semitic, despite its evident resemblance to the straight-armed Nazi salute. Their explanation of its meaning jars with the image of the young man “doing the quenelle” outside a school where four people, including children aged 4, 5 and 8, were murdered simply for being Jewish.
The proliferation of the image also draws attention to a disturbing rise in anti-Semitic attacks in France in recent years, mostly connected with the “new” anti-Semitism of young people of Arab or African origin rather than the “traditional” anti-Semitism of the French far right and part of the French bourgeoisie.
In 2012, there was 58 per cent increase in such incidents, some of them directly inspired by the murders committed by Merah (who also killed three French soldiers of Arab or African origin). The rise of violent anti-Semitism amongst young people in poor multi-racial suburbs of French cities is connected partly to the Israel-Palestine conflict and the anti-Jewish line preached by a minority of extremist Muslim imams.
But critics of the black comedian Dieudonné accuse him of not only riding this wave but helping to swell it. Over the last decade, the comedian has used his one-man show and other public appearances – often posted on YouTube or its French equivalent Daily Motion – to argue that almost all the troubles of the world, and especially of black people, are caused by Jews.
The more traditional anti-Semitism of the Far Right and high Catholic bourgeoisie in France – which is older than Nazism – persists but is receding. The new leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, carefully avoids the anti-Semitic language and themes which were used by her father, Jean-Marie, the party’s founder.
Unlike Islamist extremists such as Merah, Dieudonné has gone out of his way to make connections between “old” and “new” anti-Semitism. He has cultivated extreme right-wing Holocaust-deniers and invited Jean-Marie Le Pen to his shows.
Dieudonné invented, and patented, the “quenelle” as his trademark symbol in 2009. It involves pointing straight down to the ground with one flattened-hand while folding the other arm across the chest. Critics – including the French interior minister, Manuel Valls - say that it is evidently a mixture of an inverted Hitler salute and a traditional, obscene French hand-signal called the “bras d’honneur” (arm of honour).
In contrasts to the denials of anti-Semitic intent made by Dieudonné and Anelka, almost all postings of the gesture on the French-language Internet involve Jewish “targets”. They include an image of two French soldiers in full uniform “doing the quenelle” outside a synagogue while on anti-terrorist patrol in the streets of Paris in September.
A criminal investigation was also started this week into comments made by Dieudonne in his one man-show when he said that a well-known Jewish radio presenter reminded him of “gas ovens”. The interior minister Mr Valls has asked his officials to look for ways to ban all public appearances by the comedian as a threat to public order.
In an interview yesterday, Mr Valls suggested that Dieudonne’s principal motivation was financial, not political. He called him an “entrepreneur of hatred”.