One of the more noteworthy aspects of my greater Paris childhood is that I grew up just a few miles away from Nicolas Anelka. He is a bit older than me, and a lot better at football, but there is much about the 34-year-old with which I can relate. For a start, his parents were immigrants to France, and he is a Muslim. Anelka also has a habit of questioning the way the world is organised and sometimes annoys a few people by doing so.
The West Bromwich Albion striker’s current controversy is the quenelle, a gesture he made during a 3-3 draw against West Ham United in an English Premier League game. Stiffening his right arm and palmed hand earthward, Anelka brought his left arm across his chest in what some have described as an inverted fascist salute.
French politicians went further, insisting that the quenelle is vehemently anti-Semitic, and that Anelka should be investigated and possibly prosecuted. Words like “Nazi” were bandied around, implying that the gesture is linked to Hitler’s Third Reich.
In fact, very few people had ever heard about the quenelle before Anelka made his gesture. Arsène Wenger, by far the most famous French football manager in the world today, spoke for many when he said: “Nobody knows in France what it means. Some make it an anti-system movement, some make it an anti-Semitic movement. I think personally I don’t know, I have never seen this movement.”
A poll in Le Point magazine backs up the Arsenal boss’s claims, revealing that 77 per cent of those questioned – 33,000 readers in all – were not offended by Anelka’s goal celebration.
The quenelle – named after a culinary delicacy loosely translated as a spicy dumpling – is actually the trademark of Anelka’s comedian friend, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, and less than a decade old. It is one of those gestures which anybody – from schoolchildren to celebrities and politicians – could and did perform during those goofing around moments which are nowadays invariably caught on smart phone cameras. In this sense, it has little to do with the more controversial aspects of Dieudonné’s act – ones which have helped him amass a number of convictions for inciting racial hatred.
There is no doubt that Dieudonné has some repulsive views, but until its Premiership debut, the quenelle meant next to nothing at all. There were pictures of other footballers doing it, including Mamadou Sakho of Liverpool and Samir Nasri of Manchester City.
Apologising for his own quenelling, the France-raised basketball star Tony Parker said: “While this gesture has been part of French culture for many years, it was not until recently that I learnt of the very negative concerns associated with it. When I was photographed making that gesture three years ago, I thought it was part of a comedy act and did not know that it could be in any way offensive.”
Even Manuel Valls, the French interior minister who is now actively investigating methods of banning Dieudonné’s shows, had no idea what the gesture meant. The smiling politician was pictured standing with a group of quenelling students as recently as September.
Racism and anti-Semitism come in many different forms, but the attacks on Anelka are selective. They have now been blown up into a vast international polemic, with France’s notoriously manipulative political class picking on Anelka because he is the kind of Frenchman many disapprove of – one who is Muslim, black and from a deprived housing estate.
More sinister still, there is indisputably an agenda among many powerful French people to portray young Muslim men from similar backgrounds as being dangerously antisocial. This stereotype is the bugbear of thousands of decent, hard-working individuals who experience discrimination and suspicion in all aspects of their lives.
When Paris magazines like Charlie Hebdo publish cartoons evidently mocking Allah, then freedom of expression becomes a sacred principle of the Fifth Republic.
Even when a black cabinet minister has banana skins waved at her by protesters – as happened last October – there is initially no police investigation. But when an ethnic minority footballer pays tribute to a dodgy friend with an arm and hand gesture which nobody really understands, then there are exaggerated claims about religious hatred. President Francois Hollande is himself prepared to interfere with a constitutionally independent judiciary to try to censor Dieudonné.
The fuss about the quenelle is also a classic example of politicians taking something previously considered insignificant and then blowing it up into a nationwide argument about perceived enemies within. In France they did it with the veil ban – criminalising a small proportion of Muslim women because they want to hide their faces in public, while conveniently launching an entirely negative debate about the state of Islam in modern France.
There is absolutely no question that Anelka would condemn the revolting pictures of idiots performing quenelles outside Holocaust memorials, or other sites marking attacks on Jews. These obscenities have actually only been given international publicity because of the onslaught against him.
Anelka has effectively been found guilty without a trial. Even alleged liberals are openly referring to his supposed “anti-Semitism”. The stereotype of the antisocial, menacing young Muslim has been reaffirmed in the public imagination by divisive politicians and other opinion formers who should know better.