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.