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The quenelle: France's notorious anti-Semitic hand gesture, explained

Two men perform a quenelle in western France in 2014.
Two men perform a quenelle in western France in 2014.
Jean-Sebastien Evrard/AFP/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Days after rallies gathered across French in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and supporting free speech, French police arrested comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala for a Facebook post. In the post, Dieudonné appeared to express sympathy with the terrorist who'd killed four people at a kosher supermarket in Paris. He'll stand trial for condoning terrorism, a crime in France.

It's far from the first time Dieudonné has been arrested. He has a history of provocative comments and has been arrested at least 38 times before. He's best known as the inventor of la quenelle — a rude hand gesture that looks a lot like a chest-level version of the Nazi salute, and which has become a symbol for growing anti-Semitism in France.

Here's where the quenelle came from, how it's used, and why Dieudonné is constantly running up against French laws against hate speech.

What is the quenelle?

The quenelle is a rude gesture Dieudonné invented in 2005. The right hand is held straight out, pointing downward, with the palm open; the left arm folds across the chest, with the hand touching the right arm. Here's Dieudonné giving the quenelle in 2012:

Dieudonné gives the quenelle

(Patrick Kovarik/AFP)

And here's a group of Dieudonné fans. The pineapple is a reference to Dieudonné's song "Shoananas," the title of which is a mashup of the French words for "Holocaust" and "pineapple":

Dieudonné fans giving the quenelle

(Jean-François Monier/AFP)

Tony Parker, a French basketball player for the San Antonio Spurs, attracted wide criticism for a photograph that came out in 2013 of him with Dieudonné both using the quenelle gesture; he said he wasn't aware of the gesture's anti-Semitic interpretation.

It's since spread outside of France.

What does the quenelle mean?

Before it became a hand gesture, quenelles were a delicious French dish that are basically fish dumplings. The two are slightly related -- Dieudonné adopted the quenelle name because the dumplings are shaped like suppositories, and the quenelle is a gesture that basically means "up your ass," an old friend of the comedian told the magazine Les Inrocks in 2013.

Dieudonné insists that he means the quenelle to be a generic anti-establishment gesture. "According to his lawyer, Mr. Verdier, the quenelle is in fact an 'antisystem, antiestablishment, antileft, antiright' symbol meant to provoke the indignation of the politically correct," the New York Times wrote in 2014.

But given Dieudonné's long record of anti-Semitism, the gesture's resemblance to the Nazi salute, and the fact that his fans have performed the quenelle in front of synagogues, at the Jewish school in Toulouse where four people were murdered in 2012, and at Auschwitz, it's usually interpreted more specifically as an offensive anti-Jewish gesture.

The quenelle may have also partly been designed to circumvent French hate speech restrictions. The Nazi salute isn't specifically forbidden by law — no gestures are legally forbidden in France — but, in certain contexts, it can break hate speech laws by indicating racial or religious hatred.

Why is Dieudonné accused of anti-Semitism?

Dieudonné is one of France's best-known comedians. Earlier in his career, he performed with a Jewish comic; their act mocked all kinds of racism and bigotry. He became one of most successful comedians in France.

But beginning in 2002, the New Yorker reported, Dieudonné became an anti-Semite so abruptly and forcefully that some fans initially thought he was trying to invent a Stephen Colbert-like caricature. In 2005, the year that he invented the quenelle, Dieudonné made a bizarre appearance on a French TV show. Here's how the New Yorker describes it:

He arrived on the set wearing a camo jacket, a black ski mask, and an Orthodox Jewish hat with fake sidelocks. He launched into a speech that called on the audience to join "the Americano-Zionist Axis — the only one . . . that offers you happiness, and the only one to give you a chance of living a little bit longer." While the panel of comedians invited for the show (it included Jamel Debbouze, France’s most popular Muslim comic) laughed, the show’s host, Marc-Olivier Fogiel, looked on nervously. Dieudonné finished his polemic by raising his arm and crying, "Isra-heil." He then took off his mask and joined the panel, to a standing ovation.

Dieudonné has continued anti-Semitic acts and rants since then, including once lamenting that a Jewish journalist hadn't died in the gas chambers.

How does this fit in with anti-Semitism in France?

By most measures, anti-Semitism has been on the rise in France. France has the third-largest Jewish community in the world by population, after only Israel and the US, and a long history of anti-Semitism that was particularly virulent before and during World War II.

Like other European countries, in the wake of the Holocaust and the generations of anti-Semitic violence that had preceded it, France passed a number of laws limiting certain kinds of hate speech. These laws were initially passed to help prevent a resurgence in violence against Jews or other minorities. They have remained on the books, which is why for all of the French rallies in support of free speech this past week, the country still has tighter speech restrictions than the United States, and why Dieudonné can be arrested for a Facebook post that isn't a direct threat.

The European Jewish Congress has tracked an increase in anti-Semitism in France since the beginning of the 21st century, and the number of French Jews who are moving to Israel is also on the rise. During the Gaza conflict in 2014, protests against Israeli actions at times degenerated into anti-Semitic violence. One factor is rising tensions among disaffected young men of North African descent in the suburbs of Paris, sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar has written, who are angry that their religion seems be considered incompatible with the French state while French Jews are more assimilated than they are.

But anti-Semitism comes from other quarters as well. A survey in November found that anti-Semitism was much more common among voters for France's far-right Front National than in the general population, with 53 percent of self-reported FN voters saying they would not vote for a Jewish presidential candidate.

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