Paris — (JTA) — To outsiders, they seem like ordinary men striking macho poses for the camera. But there is a dark side to the photos that are appearing with growing frequency in the French media.
The men – and less frequently women – are performing the “quenelle,” a gesture vaguely similar to the Nazi salute that some believe was invented solely to express hatred of Jews without inviting prosecution.
In France, displaying Nazi symbols is illegal if done to cause offense. But the quenelle, in which one places the left palm across the right shoulder, may not be prosecutable. It is just similar enough to the Nazi salute to make its meaning clear, but not so similar that the gesturer could be subject to criminal charges.
“The quenelle is too vague to be treated like a Nazi salute,” Anne-Sophie Laguens, a former secretary of the conference of lawyers of the Paris bar association, wrote in a legal analysis published in September in the Le Nouvel Observateur weekly.
Until recently, most Frenchmen knew the word quenelle to mean a sort of dumpling or cookie. But after the comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala appropriated the word to refer to a salute of his own invention, the gesture has taken on anti-Semitic overtones.
Last week, the Swiss municipality of Carouge near Geneva fired two volunteer firefighters over online photos in which they performed the quenelle. In September, two French soldiers were disciplined for performing it in front of a Paris synagogue and then posting the image online.
Dieudonne, a professed anti-Semite, Hamas supporter and Holocaust denier, was convicted last month for a seventh time of incitement against Jews and slapped with a $36,000 fine. Like the Nazi salute, the quenelle is seen as a variant of the Roman salute and, considering its inventor’s penchant for defiance of France’s anti-Nazi laws, is understood to challenge the prohibition on performing the Nazi salute.
“It’s an inverted Nazi salute,” Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF Jewish umbrella group, told the French media recently.
The quenelle is of a piece with Dieudonne’s coining of the term “shoananas,” a mashup of the Hebrew word for Holocaust and the French word for pineapple that is seen as a safe way to suggest the Holocaust is a myth while not running afoul of French laws prohibiting Holocaust denial. Dieudonne fans have taken to performing the quenelle next to pineapples.
The quenelle’s popularity has soared in France. Hundreds of quenelle photos can be found in anti-Semitic forums and on Facebook, with quenelles performed at Jewish sites and at Nazi concentration camps especially popular. But while civil servants may face disciplinary action over the quenelle, civilians may perform it with impunity.
Laguens’ analysis of the legal implications of the quenelle came days after a young man sitting in the audience of a prime-time television show performed it while smiling for the camera. A Facebook user identified as Leo Romano planned a “quenelle party” for Dec. 22 in eastern France, but on Tuesday he said he had been summoned to the office of France’s domestic intelligence agency.