(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.
“It’s an anti-establishment gesture, not a racist or anti-Semitic one, as the media would have you believe to discredit us,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
Outside France, the quenelle is virtually unknown. This has allowed the users of anti-Semitic Internet forums to relish the irony of photographs of French tourists performing the quenelle while posing with an oblivious Israeli soldier and at the Western Wall.
But in France, the gesture is being treated with increasing seriousness by government officials. In a statement Monday to supporters of the CRIF, President Francois Hollande suggested his government would move to undermine the sense of legal impunity now enjoyed by those who perform the quenelle.
“We will act, with the government led by [Prime Minister] Jean-Marc Ayrault, to shake the tranquility which, under the cover of anonymity, facilitates shameful actions online,” Hollande said. “But also we will fight against the sarcasm of those who purport to be humorists but are actually professional anti-Semites.”
Among French Jews, there is considerable support for stretching France’s restrictive laws on incitement to include the quenelle and the shoananas. But as the fight against anti-Semitism intensifies in France, so does criticism that it places too many restrictions on freedom of expression.
Many were outraged by a French court ruling in January that forced Twitter to hand over details about users who posted anti-Semitic messages. Others sounded the alarm when a court last month ordered the censoring of five books containing anti-Semitic texts, including one first published 122 years ago and reproduced many times.
“They aspire to spread their hate with total impunity while intimidating those who seek to apply the law,” Jonathan Hayoun, the president of the Union for French Students who led the fight against Twitter, wrote on the French edition of the Huffington Post this month, referring to Dieudonne and his associate, Alain Soral. “They seek to make racism an opinion, not an offense. We therefore continue to do what we can to pursue justice.”
As for Dieudonne, he seems to be enjoying his ongoing attempts to test the limits of French anti-hate laws. In a video blog post last month, he showed a picture of John Travolta on the dance floor, one hand stretched heavenward.
The caption? Disco Nazi.