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Dieudonné, Anelka and the anti-semitic quenelle

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Dieudonné M'bala M'bala is a funny sort of comedian. He was once tipped as the future of the French Left, he ran as a fringe candidate in the 1997 elections and he used to tour with Jewish performer Elie Semoun. These days, however, he is better-known as the man behind the 'quenelle' - the salute rallying anti-Semites across France

Though Dieudonné might claim to rep­re­sent Pales­tin­ian in­ter­ests, six con­vic­tions for in­cit­ing racial ha­tred do not in­spire con­fi­dence. Ref­er­ences to the Holo­caust as "memo­r­ial porn", high praise for for­mer Iran­ian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad, and a goose-step­ping car­i­ca­ture of the Is­raeli De­fence Force re­veal a co­me­dian more con­cerned with con­tro­versy than con­cil­i­a­tion. His ‘joke’ about open­ing the gas cham­bers for Radio France jour­nal­ist Patrick Cohen found a happy, laugh­ing crowd. Dieudonné main­tains the 'joke' was an aside, taken out of con­text con­text and pa­raded as anti-Semi­tism. A fresh in­dict­ment is un­der­way while French Min­is­ter of the In­te­rior Manuel Valls  at­tempts to ban him from per­form­ing.

Hav­ing in­vited Holo­caust de­nier Robert Fau­ris­son on stage and de­scrib­ing the Shoah as 'be­fore his time', com­par­isons be­tween Dieudonné and Nazism aren't as facile as they ap­pear. The co­me­dian re­sents the Jew­ish ‘mo­nop­oly’ on col­lec­tive grief and guilt, which he feels blinds the world to the plight of Africa, both past and pre­sent. The media has been quick to brand the quenelle an 'in­verted Nazi salute', and how­ever in­no­cent its in­cep­tion, there is no doubt the ges­ture has taken on anti-Se­mitic sig­nif­i­cance. Pho­tographs have emerged of the salute being per­formed out­side the Ozar Ha­torah school, the scene of the 2012 Toulouse shoot­ings, as well as Auschwitz. Pre­mier League foot­baller Nico­las Anelka cel­e­brated with the ges­ture at West Ham's Upton Park, which was once the focal point of Jew­ish East Lon­don. Huff­ing the oxy­gen of pub­lic­ity, the salute's pop­u­lar­ity grows by the day.

De­spite this, Dieudonné re­mains pop­u­lar in his na­tive France. His the­atre, La Main d'Or, is reg­u­larly  booked-out, his YouTube chan­nel boasts two hun­dred thou­sand sub­scribers, and his celebrity friends in­clude bas­ket­ball star Tony Parker. With the Front Na­tional's anti-Semi­tism side­lined by crowd-pleas­ing Is­lam­o­pho­bia, Dieudonné has ex­ploited right-wing re­sent­ment to­wards the state of Is­rael. Al­though Dieudonné fought against Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 1997 elec­tions, in 2008 he made the for­mer Front Na­tional leader the god­fa­ther of his daugh­ter. While anti-Zion­ism is not nec­es­sar­ily anti-Semi­tism, Dieudonné has sur­passed le­git­i­mate crit­i­cism of il­le­gal set­tle­ments, in­stead char­ac­ter­is­ing the Jew­ish peo­ple as mis­guided, un­trust­wor­thy, and bru­tal.

Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally brash, on 31 De­cem­ber, Dieudonné claimed that 2014 will be the 'year of the quenelle'. With a storm of cov­er­age on both sides of the Chan­nel, he may well be cor­rect.