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Meet the French Comedian Behind Soccer's Antisemitism Controversy

Ian Kington/AFP/Getty

Nicolas Anelka might regret the goal he scored on Monday: The French soccer star ignited a global controversy when, celebrating, he struck a pose that may be based on the Nazi salute.

Ian Kington/AFP/Getty

The gesture—known as the quenelle—was invented by anti-Zionist French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, and has become popular with anti-Semitic social media users who post pictures of themselves performing the quenelle at Holocaust memorials and synagogues. Anelka claims he didn’t understand the racist implications of the gesture, tweeting that he was “just” paying tribute to Dieudonné, who he calls a friend; some say the quenelle symbolizes objection to “the establishment,” not the Jews. But whether or not Anelka knew what he was doing, Dieudonné is definitely out to offend.

Who is Dieudonné, and what is his problem with Jews? In a 2006 paper in the journal The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms, Jean-Yves Camus, a researcher at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris, hypothesized that Dieudonné’s anger is a product of historic tension—and even competition—between the black and Jewish communities in France.

The relationship between the Black and Jewish communities is ambivalent, with the major subject of controversy being the legal status of the Nazi genocide, on the one hand, and of the slave trade, on the other. Some black activists strongly resent the exclusive demand of the Jewish community to recognize the Holocaust as the only case of genocide and crime against humanity. Such ideas are promoted by a French comedian of Cameroonian origin, Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, who has used his fame to build a network of black-cause associations promoting a distinctive brand of leftist ideology coupled with a strong anti-Zionist element, which Jewish organizations describe as an anti-Semitic prejudice. The ‘‘Dieudonné case,’’ as it is now known, came to nationwide attention on 1 December 2003, when he appeared on state television network France 3. Dressed as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, the comedian gave a Nazi salute and shouted ‘‘Isra-Heil,’’ thus implicitly comparing the Jewish State to the Nazi regime. Dieudonné, who used to be known as an anti-racist and pro-Palestinian activist, seems to have become radicalized when he was denied public funding for a movie he intended to make about the Code Noir, the compendium of laws enacted in 1685 by King Louis XIV in order to regulate the slave trade.

Born in Paris to a Cameroonian father and a British mother, Dieudonné hasn’t always used hate to garner attention. In the 1990s, he became popular with left-wing audiences by making fun of stereotypes and racism of all kinds; his partner onstage was a Jewish comic, Elie Semoun. But whether or not it was his difficulty getting funding that provoked him, he’s drifted farther and farther to the right in recent years. In 2009, he ran in the European elections on an anti-Zionist platform. Jean-Marie le Pen, the founder of the National Front party, is his son’s godfather.

French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said yesterday that he’s determined “to make Dieudonne M’bala M’bala pay his fines,” and organizations like the Council of French Jewish Institutions and Cannes Film Festival have banned or condemned his work—but some fear that the more Dieudonné provokes the “establishment,” the more he succeeds at “making anti-Semitism cool again.”

Dieudonné makes fun of the idea that we should remember the Holocaust, singing a song called “Shoananas”—a portmanteau of “Shoah” (Holocaust) and “ananas” (pineapple):

Dieudonné accuses Zionists of exploiting France’s role in the Holocaust to advance their causes:

Dieudonné mocks Benjamin Netanyahu: