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 by Nick Wright

The West Brom striker made a gesture, unremarked on at the time, the significance of which was lost on the fans and, probably, still is.

Indeed, one needs to be considerably more cosmopolitan than the small-minded men at the FA – more switched on to the nuances of French popular culture and political discourse – to grasp the wider significance of the gesture; and have a working knowledge of French to be clued in to the linguistic and ideological cross currents at play. So, although, in this area, they have their own expertise, we should not look to the men at the top of English football to negotiate our way through this particular thicket of prejudice.

Anelka is in the last stages of his professional career as a footballer. Sure footed as he is on the football pitch he is not playing at his strategic best at the moment.

The gesture he performed; one arm pointed diagonally downwards, palm down while touching the shoulder with the opposite hand, has been seen as a take on on the repressed Nazi salute performed by Peter Sellars/Doctor Strangelove – the parodic Nazi boffin in the service of the US war machine, in the 60s anti-war film of that name.

If this is the case it is too remote a signifier to to resonate with a contemporary audience of film buffs let alone the average Albion gate.

But in France, everyone knows what it means, even if they claim to think it means something different. The gesture owes its origin in today’s controversies to the French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. It is here that the story gets a bit complicated.

Dieudonné started his career as one half of a comedy duo with the Jewish performer Élie Semoun. Their schtick was a play on stereotypes and was moderately successful. About the turn of the century Dieudonné humour pitched him into politics and he morphed into a popular anti racist campaigner against the National Front.

Where he began to wobble dangerously out of his political orbit followed a skit in which he parodied an Israeli settler as a Nazi.

This is dangerous territory, not because drawing parallels between Zionist policies and aspects of Nazi behaviour is not commonplace enough – or even justified on the facts – but because political humour of this kind does not work without a common framework of understanding and feeling and a shared vocabulary of word and gesture.

And in this arena, while there is little common ground, there are powerful forces that willingly conflate criticism of zionism with anti semitism.

Inevitably and immediately, Dieudonné came under criticism for alleged antisemitism. His response was to argue that if he was permitted to mock the mullahs, as he had done in previous performances, then he was entitled, so to speak, to work the other side of the street. And he hit back to denounce zionism and ‘the Jewish lobby’.

He soon began to feel shut out of broadcast media while municipal authorities proved responsive to calls for him to be banned. He reacted, understandably enough, by creating a new audience through the internet, recording and in the theatre.

And fell straight into the trap he had set himself.

He took up with Jean Marie le Pen, the leader of the Front National whose rhetoric joined an anti-establishment discourse with a barely concealed anti-semitism. It is his successor as FN leader, his daughter Marine le Pen, who has developed these themes and grown the FN through criticism of the European Union and the banks – joined as necessary, as ever in fascist demagogics, with racism and anti semitism.

The Front National has proved adept at playing to its traditional base of Catholic reactionaries, ‘pied noir’ displaced from North Africa, functionaries with a ‘cop’ mentality, small business folk and rural reactionaries while courting sections of the working class displaced by the European Union’s neo-liberal policies. It presents itself as essentially anti-establishment.

There is an unhealthy strain of political thinking in France that, partly from a reaction against the dominant pro-Israeli trend in French ruling circles and the media and partly influenced by a long present and subterranean populist anti semitic thread, has lowered the guard of some people who see themselves on the anti-establishment side of politics.

It would be foolish and blind to political reality not to see the political context in which the French labour market is underpinned by migrants from France’s North and central African sphere of imperial influence as aiding the creation of an audience for Dieudonné’s risqué performances but it would be equally unseeing not to take account of the ways in which his performances have an audience among disaffected youth and an anti-authoritarian milieu, white, black and Arab.

There are no excuses for the turn taken by Dieudonné. He has staked his career to a dangerous discourse where the boundary between criticism of zionism and anti semitism takes him into the company of Holocaust deniers like Robert Faurisson, alliance with dubious characters like Alain Soral and a political territory where right wing and left wing concepts are endlessly mixed together.

French intellectual life is replete with personalities who have made the transition from left to right, their promiscuity usually to their material advantage and often to the confusion of the unwary. Soral is one, now back in the leadership of the FN and a renegade former communist with a gift for wrapping up reactionary ideas in a seemingly progressive language. Roger Garaudy, the 60’s philoiosopher darling of the eurocommunists turned Islamist obscurantist another.

The quenelle undoubtedly has a currency as an anti-authoritarian gesture, I have seen it displayed to the police completely independent of any recognisable anti-semitic context. But Dieudonné has created a context in which its ambiguity is dispelled by quite unambiguous anti-semitic language and behaviour.

Whether Anelka was making an explicitly anti semitic gesture is impossible to divine. It seems improbable that West Bromich Albion supporters were the intended audience. More likely it was simple gesture of solidarity with his friend Dieudonné who finds himself under attack.

Treating it as if it is on a par with the kind of racist behaviour and speech that is rooted in the powerful conventions of British football – both on pitch and off – is disproportionate. But what Anelka has done is to introduce it into a British context in which racist assumptions and behaviour need little encouragement.

Where the unthinking come a cropper is in giving substance to the Zionist trope which conflates criticism of Zionism and every act of the apartheid Zionist state with anti-semitism.

The Zionist device which justifies the Israeli theft of the Palestinian homeland by reference to the genocide carried out by the Nazi regime cannot be disputed with authority or conviction if this solidarity is compromised by anti-semitism.


5 thoughts on “What was Nicolas Anelka thinking?

  1. Nick I followed the ins and outs you describe and agree with your main points.

    But why do so many on the left waste time agonising over something that is so obvious? A French ‘comedian’ becomes godfather to the child of the principal fascist and anti Semitic and holocaust denying family in France, says publicly a journalist should be gassed and acres of newsprint are expended wondering if, or in what context, the salute of his supporters might be anti Semitic. I do not remember giving such depth of thought to similar signs displayed by the NF or the BNP. Amazing.

    I think you are way too charitable in one respect. You do not mention the spineless response of the Euro wing of the Kick it out campaign whose spokesman asked us to differentiate between racism displayed to black players and the display of anti semitism by Anelka. This undoubtedly have Anelka the green light to defend his actions.

    I’m glad the FA are taking this seriously. I am glad WBA sponsors are saying they don’t want to be associated with such actions. I think fans everywhere should say they do not want such public displays in the game.

    • I suppose one can differentiate between racism aimed at black players and Anelka’s display of a gesture that has a clear currency as antisemitic in that they are parts of rather different political discourse that only partly intersect. This is not simply that the first is an endemic and deeply ingrained part of football in this country with specific class and cultural references and a particular political context while, for a British audience, Anelka’s act, was initially, without resonance.
      Where Anelka is particularly idiotic is in not realising that he would inevitably add a new dimension and another rhetorical device to the racist armoury. He has played enough in Britain to understand this.
      I think it is unreasonable to demand of people from North Africa for example, or from a different political and cultural tradition and with a less direct engagement with European history, or rather with a particular experience of European colonial domination, the same kind of responses to the discourse around anti semitism as we demand of people more immediately rooted in a European context.
      Put simply,where the discussion in Europe is conditioned by the relatively recent creation of a particular discourse around what we now call the Holocaust in Arab, African and North African cultures this has less purchase on mass consciousness, does not command the same kinds of mediation and is conditioned by a sharper awareness of Israel’s iniquity than is conventional in Europe.
      To put my final point in the posting another way.
      The protests of those who conceive of the quenelle as essentially anti semitic have a lot more credibility and traction if they, at the same time, refute the Zionist conflation of jew and zionist.

      • “The protests of those who conceive of the quenelle as essentially anti semitic have a lot more credibility and traction if they, at the same time, refute the Zionist conflation of jew and zionist.”

        Why? Since when do anti-racists have to refute one thing to oppose another? If the gesture is wrong, so be it.

        You say “Where Anelka is particularly idiotic is in not realising that he would inevitably add a new dimension…” Supposing he aimed to do exactly that? School pupils throughout the country now know about this holocaust denying so called ‘comedian’ and his leitmotif. You could equally conclude that Anelka will pay a fine, miss a few games when he needs a bit of a rest, and has done his job.

        I think it’s a lot simpler than you imply. Once someone comes from a different continent and makes their home in Britain, we begin to share a history and common concerns. Presumably all opponents of racism in Britain will want also to oppose anti semitism. One surely cannot say, “well I do not originate from Europe, therefore I will oppose racism, but go lite on anti semitism, because I was not around when the Holocaust happened.”

        By separating out the two elements in our national life as if they are qualitatively different, have different levels of understanding (excuse) and require different treatments, is – at best – opposing racism with one hand tied behind one’s back. At worst, its not really opposing it at all. That’s why the credibility of Kick It Out has been seriously damaged by its partial and particular response. The European KIO response was just an apologetic.

        I think you are on safer ground to say, “if it is wrong, it’s plain wrong”.

  2. Phil
    Dierdonné is a reactionary scoundrel who uses anti-semitic tropes to promote his career and who cynically plays upon the widespread anti authoritarian sentiment among disaffected and alienated French youth who are disorientated by the combination of anti-arab racism and discrimination that is such an integral part of French life and by the pro-Israel foreign policy of imperialist France as it tries to recover influence in its former colonial possessions.

    French reaction is a complex phenomena with an endemic and deeply rooted anti semitism, especially strong among France’s middle classes, that co exists quite easily alongside a metropolitan intellectual climate and media that combines anticommunism, humanitarian interventionism and zionism.

    A bizarre offshoot of this is a sub genre of ‘anti-zionism’ that replicates in reverse the conflation of jew and zionist that is the stock in trade of the zionists themselves whilst clothing its reactionary ideological and political standpoint with a radical rhetoric.

    Aneleka, if his protestations are to be believed, is an exemplar of precisely the the kind of confused ‘radicalism’ that is taken in by this device. If his protestations are faked then he has put himself in the same category as Dierdonné, Soral, Faurission and le Pen and is more rogue than a fool.

    The point is, we don’t necessarily share a history and concerns with everyone who comes from a different continent and makes their home here. The functioning of the labour market in post colonial economies and within the EU particularly means that big groups of workers have radically different histories.

    You argue… “By separating out the two elements in our national life as if they are qualitatively different, have different levels of understanding (excuse) and require different treatments, is – at best – opposing racism with one hand tied behind one’s back”.

    I think rather the opposite is true. If we treat the anti semitism of the fascist BNP as the same phenomena, amenable to the same political intervention, as the ‘anti semitic’ form which much popular consciousness is expressed in the Arab world, among muslims in developed capitalist countries, or even among politically inexperienced young people like those who form part of Dierdonné’s audience then we tie both our hands behind our back.

    We have to maintain an unyielding hostility to every manifestation of anti semitism. But our criticism of it must go not to the surface form in which it is expressed but to its foundation.
    If it arises from a failure to make the distinction between jews as a category and zionists then a particular kind of political intervention is required that draws on the role of antisemitism in maintaining bourgeois rule under both bourgeois democracy and fascism and that explains the significance of the nazi programme of extermination.

    Then we begin to share a history and common concerns.

    If it expresses a more deep rooted reactionary outlook and a fascist ideology rooted in the racism of an imperialist ideology then an entirely different set of interventions is required.

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