Dieudonné’s calculated anti-Semitism
Free speech is too valuable a weapon to be thrown away. Eddie Ford calls for unequivocal opposition to state bans on racists and fascists
Dieudonné Mbala Mbala: political ambitions
Last December in an “entertaining” 3:3 draw between West Bromwich Albion and West Ham United something new was brought to the game of football and our national culture - unfortunately. Whilst celebrating the scoring of his first ever goal for West Brom, the French player, Nicolas Anelka, performed the quenelle - a hand gesture that involves pointing one arm diagonally downwards, palm in front, while touching the shoulder with the opposite hand. Quenelle is actually a French dish consisting of elongated fish or meat balls, which are said to look like a suppository.1 Thus, according to Wikipedia, the phrase mettre une quenelle (“to give someone the quenelle”) is a gesture simulating the sexual practice of fisting - the “arm outstretched refers to the length of the arm going up one’s bottom”.2 In other words, ‘Up yours!’
The quenelle was invented and popularised by Anelka’s friend, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala - the half-Breton, half-Cameroon, French comedian, who many years ago in a different life was described as a “Gallic Lenny Henry”. Dieudonné himself is a friend and supporter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, former leader of the far-right Front National, and his stage acts are notorious for their dubious content often relating to Jews. While Dieudonné claims the quenelle is an anti-establishment gesture, the context in which he uses it and its adoption by ‘anti-Zionists’ gives it a rather different meaning - that of anti-Semitism. It has been described as an inverted Nazi salute.
Anelka initially said on his Twitter page that the gesture on that day was “just a special dedication” to Dieudonné - nothing more. However, the French minister for sports and youth affairs, Valérie Fourneyron, had a different perspective. She immediately condemned Anelka’s “disgusting” and “shocking provocation”, declaring there to be “no place for anti-Semitism on the football field”.
Naturally, the 34-year-old Anelka claims innocence: “I am neither racist nor anti-Semitic”, he tweeted to his 900,000 followers. Rather, he claimed, the “meaning of quenelle is anti-system” and said he did not know “what religion has to do with this story”. The message being that he is just a humble football player (albeit one on £52,000 a week) up against the establishment, whether it be the French political class or the English Football Association. A man of the people.
Bluntly, Anelka is bullshitting. It is stretching credibility to breaking point to think Anelka is that stupid or naive about the meaning of the quenelle. No, spontaneous gesture though it might have been, Anelka knew what he was doing on that football pitch.
Anyhow, the FA has charged Anelka with an “aggravated offence” and the footballer now faces a disciplinary hearing. If it finds against him, he faces a minimum five-match ban and probably longer. Zoopla, a house property website co-owned by the prominent Jewish businessman, Alex Chesterman, has already decided to end its sponsorship of WBA and will instead “focus on other marketing activities”. Anti-Semitism is obviously not good for business.
However, the protracted nature of the FA investigations has already prompted criticism from several quarters - especially the liberal football anti-racist group, Kick It Out, which has expressed its “frustration” at the lack of prompt action. Lord Ouseley, KIO’s chairman, has accused some clubs of “hiding behind the FA” and ducking their responsibilities when it comes to tackling racism, whether by players or fans.
Meanwhile, the West Brom striker insists that he is “anti-establishment”, not anti-Semitic - just like his good friend, Dieudonné.
Fourneyron is quite right about the quenelle salute - it is an anti- Semitic provocation, for all the righteous protestations of Anelka and Dieudonné. Yes, the latter started off on the radical left - using his shows to attack racism - ironically the Front National and the odious Le Pen. The French comedian even stood in the 1997 French legislative election for The Utopians party (which brought together artists from the Dreux region) against the FN candidate, Marie-France Stirbois - receiving an eminently respectable 8% of the vote. In his shows and on demonstrations, Dieudonné was a militant campaigner for the rights of migrants without residence permits (the sans papiers) and the Palestinian cause.
Now, Dieudonné constantly portrays the Jews (sorry, “Zionists”) as the main source of France’s misery and economic decline - not capitalism. In a clear demonstration of Dieudonné’s political trajectory, Le Pen - the former object of his comic ire - became in July 2008 the godfather to his third child. Not insignificantly, a ‘traditionalist’ Catholic priest, Philippe Laguérie, officiated at the baptism. An ominous resurfacing of the old rightwing France - Catholic, counterrevolutionary and anti-Semitic.
Various explanations have been offered for Dieudonné’s conversion. Some have suggested that his primary motivation is money, seeing how his performances are now always sold out - audiences attracted by his controversial reputation. ’Twas ever thus. Others though believe that he harbours serious political ambitions. For instance, Anne-Sophie Mercier, a French TV journalist - who in 2005 wrote a book entitled The truth about Dieudonné - believes that his lurch into anti-Semitism and reactionary populism is part of a “calculated strategy”. The comedian, she argues, wants to become a political leader of the ‘anti-establishment’ disaffected, but mainly of young blacks and Muslims. It is far easier, Mercier continues, to persuade this constituency to blame Jews than to turn it against a white bourgeois society whose material symbols of success it actively craves.
Whatever the exact nature of his motivations, Dieudonné first used the quenelle in a 2005 show about secularism named ‘1905’ - arguably, the gesture had already taken on an anti- Semitic dimension. Tellingly, in 2007 he was found guilty of “incitement to racial hatred” on several occasions, one typically offending statement being: “All of them [Jews] are slave-traders who’ve moved into banking, show-business and, today, terrorist action.” By 2009 the quenelle had become linked more clearly to anti-Semitism, when it appeared on a campaign poster3 for the ‘anti-Zionist list’ for that year’s European elections - Dieudonné then being a star candidate for the Anti-Zionist Party (PAS).4 In that campaign he stated that his intention was to “put a quenelle into Zionism’s butt”. Similarly, he has subsequently talked about sliding his quenelle into the “arsehole” of president François Hollande.
It should be noted that PAS - an eclectic, hotch-potch of an organisation - was partly funded by the former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The latter also financed Dieudonné’s 2012 feature film, L’Anti-sémite, the story of a violent alcoholic who likes dressing up as a Nazi officer and goes to a Jewish psychiatrist to cure him of his anti-Semitism - when he is not mocking Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide.5 The film also features the despicable Robert Faurisson, who was fined by a French court in 1983 for having declared that Hitler “never ordered nor permitted that anyone be killed by reason of his race or religion” and was convicted in 1990 of holocaust denial. He obviously impressed Ahmadinejad, who in 2012 granted Faurisson an award for his “courage” in telling the truth.
In fact, the adage, ‘By their friends shall ye know them’, could have been invented for Dieudonné. Another close friend and co-thinker is Alain Soral, who also appeared in L’Anti-sémite and the 2009 ‘anti-Zionist list’. Soral flipped from being a Parti Communiste Français member to an FN central committee member, whilst always maintaining that he adhered to a “sociological Marxist analysis of the modern-day society” (he left the FN in 2009). Soral these days is distinguished by a noxious flow of anti-Semitism, such as his 2004 comments on the Complément d’enquête TV programme that “for 2,500 years, every time they [Jews] settled somewhere, after about 50 years or so they get kicked out”. He went on: “You’d think that’s strange. It’s as though everyone is wrong except them”. But if “you’re talking with a Frenchman who is a Zionist Jew”, Soral said, then “the guy will start shouting, yelling, going mad … you won’t be able to carry on with the conversation”. Which for Soral “tells you that there’s a psychopathology with Zionism-Judaism, something that verges on mental illness”.
Dieudonné can bleat all he wants about being “anti-Zionist”, not anti-Semitic, but the evidence is overwhelming. One of his most well-known sketches involves him giving a heroism award to Robert Faurisson. The ‘joke’ was that the award was being presented by a man in a concentration camp uniform, complete with a yellow star. You had to be there. Dieudonné told the Iranian Press TV station that the “Zionist lobby” has “taken France as hostage”, knowing how to “structure themselves into a mafia-like organisation”. Clearly this is not the anti-Zionism of someone, for example, opposed to the brutal oppression of the Palestinians by the state of Israel; more like the ‘anti-Zionism’ of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, predicated on a conspiracy theory that “the Jews” are secretly pulling all the strings. Dieudonné’s quenelle is the ‘anti-establishment’ gesture of reactionary fools.
How to respond to the quenelle? The approach of official France is to resort to proscriptions under ‘hate crime’ laws in an attempt to close down Dieudonné’s one-man act. His scheduled shows in Nantes, Tours and Orléans have been banned and he has already been fined a total €65,000 (£54,000) stemming from nine convictions for “hate speech”. Manuel Valls, the interior minister, has vowed to “pursue” the comedian through the courts and is considering legal constraints on Dieudonné’s online appearances, which so far have been viewed by over two million people.
From our own, communist point of view, we are unequivocally opposed to state bans on racists and fascists or any other organisation. Yes, we can organise all sorts of protests against the likes of Dieudonné - concerted heckling, no platforming, physical intimidation, and so on. This is a purely tactical question depending upon the concrete circumstances. But not state laws attacking freedom of expression and association - free speech is too valuable to throw away. Anyhow, almost anyone can play the state’s game - whether it be Dieudonné and his ‘anti-establishment’ salute or Shostakovich coding anti-Stalin messages into his music. No, communists never lend their support to ‘anti-extremist’ legislation or laws prohibiting certain words, phrases or symbols, as ultimately they will be weapons used against us - something that history has shown time and time again.
Hence we are slightly encouraged by the January 14 issue of Socialist Worker. True, it did not come out with the right line, but neither did it come out with the wrong line - which normally consists of something like: ‘We do not entirely approve, but we understand why you want to ban an English Defence League or British National Party march, so we in the SWP will not oppose you.’ However, in this article we read that the government’s attempts to ban him “don’t come from any genuine will to fight racism”, reminding us that Valls himself has “actively fuelled racism against Roma people and Muslims” - and that such “double standards” have “ensured considerable controversy over the banning of Dieudonné’s shows”.
We are also told that Valls’s “offensive” against Dieudonné comes just as “long-awaited statistics showed unemployment continued to rise, contrary to the government’s promises”, and that the interior minister was filmed “being admonished” by a working class resident in Aulnay - “The real problem of French people is more serious than a so-called quenelle problem, or visiting a supposedly unsafe neighbourhood. What we elected you for is mainly employment. That’s the real problem.”
OK, it is not a brilliant analysis - this is the SWP we are talking about, after all. Thus we get the usual economism, as opposed to a stress on high politics and the fight for extreme democracy. But, then again, the Socialist Worker article contains a distinct element of truth. At least the SWP is not giving tacit approval to state bans in this article.