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What is the ‘quenelle’?

The ‘quenelle' is a part-anti-Semitic, part-obscene hand gesture that has spread across France, and has sparked controversy in England since Nicolas Anelka chose the Premier League as a perfect location to demonstrate it.

Thought to be named after an long, fish meatball dish because of its resemblance to a suppository, the gesture is formed by pointing one arm down while touching the shoulder with the other arm.

Last Christmas, the gesture was believed to have provoked three vigilante attacks by gangs of young Jewish men who were retaliating against the ‘quenelle’, with incidents reported at a hotel, disco and the attack of a young Muslim man in Lyon.

The gesture gained notoriety following its repeated use by French comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala during his shows.

The Paris public prosecutor's office has opened a preliminary investigation against Dieudonné for 'incitement to racial hatred'

Is the ‘quenelle that offensive?

Dieudonné and many of his admirers, ranging from the far left to the far right, insist that it is merely an “anti-establishment gesture”, surviving from his “anti-Zionist” campaign in 2009. However, critics say that it is a calculated, anti-Semitic provocation.

The president of the French league against racism and anti-Semitism, Alain Jakubowicz, says that the gesture signifies “the sodomisation of victims of the Holocaust”. Dieudonné has started a legal action against Mr Jakubowicz for libel.

Jean-Yves Camus, a French academic who studies the extreme right, says the ‘quenelle’ has become a “badge of identity, especially among the young, but it is doubtful that all of them understand its true meaning".

Why is Dieudonné a controversial figure in France?

Despite several convictions for anti-Semitic remarks, Dieudonné has strayed once again over the boundary between self-proclaimed anti-Zionism and outright provocation. During his one-man show, he attacked Patrick Cohen, a Jewish radio journalist who has publicly criticised him.

Dieudonné said: “When the wind turns, I don’t think he’ll have time to pack a suitcase. When I hear Patrick Cohen talking, you see, I think of gas ovens.” France Inter, the radio station for which Mr Cohen works, has brought a case against Dieudonné for provoking racial hatred.

The French Interior Minister, Manuel Valls, threatened to ban all public appearances by the comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, including his popular, one-man show in his own theatre near Bastille in Paris.

It is against this background that three gangs of young Jewish men took matters into their own hands in Lyons last weekend. One gang attacked a young man of North African origin accused of putting a photo of himself “doing the quenelle” on Facebook.

The other gangs attacked a hotel and a disco, alleged to be places where the quenelle was performed regularly. Six young men face prosecution for “premeditated gang violence”.

From Dieudonne to Nicolas Anelka: The hand signal that sparked a race row in France