Why Dieudonné’s quenelle gesture poses challenges for Britain and France

God may not play dice, but Dieudonne does. Michel Euler/AP

French comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala has been acquitted over a video in which he called for the release of a man who tortured and murdered a Jew in 2006. The court ruled it could not prove he was behind the video’s release.

But this is far from the only controversy to surround him recently. In addition to recently being banned from performing shows at several venues in France, this week Dieudonné was banned from entering the UK.

It is largely the quenelle gesture that has caused all the fuss, on this side of the channel at least. It was largely unknown in Britain prior to reactions to Nicolas Anelka’s decision to perform this salute after scoring for West Bromwich Albion against West Ham on December 28, 2013. One could make precisely the same point about Dieudonné himself, with whom Anelka was seeking to demonstrate solidarity.

Some eagle-eyed film goers might have recognised Dieudonné from the role he played in the 2002 film Astérix and Obélix Meet Cleopatra. Others might have been aware of occasional UK press coverage devoted to allegations of anti-Semitism that have been levelled at him following on and off-stage declarations, as well as his various convictions for inciting hatred.

For some, the quenelle is an anti-Semitic gesture but others, such as Anelka, seek to play it down as being merely anti-system. Roger Cukierman of The Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF) stated that the quenelle is not anti-Semitic when performed in “in a place that has no significance for Jews”. But since making these comments Cukierman has criticised Anelka for choosing to express solidarity with Dieudonné.

On the other hand French government spokesperson Najat Vallaud Belkacem has said that it would be “incredibly stupid or incredibly naïve” to interpret the quenelle as being anti-system and not anti-Semitic.

But it’s clear that there is division among Jewish groups as to how to interpret the quenelle. Mark Gardner of the Jewish organisation Community Security Trust has suggested that the way in which Dieudonné and his close allies refer to Jews and Jewish groups means that their “anti-system” approach can be perceived as also being anti-Semitic.

The complexities that stem from differing interpretations of what the quenelle denotes – explicitly and implicitly – may well explain why almost a month elapsed between Anelka performing the gesture and the Football Association issuing him with a disciplinary charge. Although Anelka declared that he would not repeat his quenelle goal celebration two days after the match where he performed it, he has continued to seek to justify the gesture.

In so doing, he has adopted a similar defence to French footballer Samir Nasri, who was photographed performing the gesture outside Manchester City’s training ground in autumn 2013.

Dieudonné encourages his followers to submit pictures of themselves performing the quenelle to his website and he displays a large gallery of examples. His use of the web, and in particular social media, has become increasingly important at a time when he is rarely interviewed by the mainstream media in France and has had several shows banned due to public order concerns and the state’s desire to reflect upon “how to prevent the repeated inciting of hate and racial discrimination and remarks that infringe upon human dignity” .

In so doing, the French state has had to attempt to balance freedom of expression with its concerns about maintaining public order.

But the strategies of both the UK and French governments could be seen as contributing to the pariah-like status that Le Monde journalist Benoît Hopquin sees as playing a key role in Dieudonné’s “route to success”.

During the six weeks that have elapsed since Anelka’s goal celebration made headlines, Dieudonné’s number of followers on Twitter appear to have trebled. There has also been a 60% increase in the number of “likes” for his Facebook page. His official Facebook page recently shared a video of an English language report on France24 about his ban from the United Kingdom. It appeared to celebrate the ban via the inclusion of the phrase “the quenelle is not stopping its world tour”.

Publicity gained through controversy is largely what keeps Dieudonné in the news. Somewhat paradoxically, the more he is portrayed as an outcast the larger the following he gains. If the potential of his on and off-stage declarations to inflame tensions – and the extent to which they are propagated – is to be reduced, it is perhaps time for the UK and France to think carefully about how they manage such a challenging situation.