San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker's fascism problem started years ago, but it didn't catch up to him until a week ago, on another continent, in another sport.
Last Saturday, West Brom striker Nicolas Anelka—like Parker, a Frenchman—scored a goal in the 40th minute of a Premier League match. With his left hand, he reached toward his shoulder, while extending his right down to the ground. It was the quenelle, a militaristic salute popularized by a man named Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, a French comedian who is, among other things, a Holocaust denier and an anti-Semite. The quenelle is reminiscent of a Nazi salute, and Anelka's gesture was seen as a nod not only to his friend, Dieudonné, but to fascism, as well. Anelka could receive up to a 10-match ban.
This is when the French media started digging up old photos. Dieudonné is ostensibly funny, and certainly famous in his own country, and thus has many famous friends. One of them is Parker, who was photographed doing the quenelle alongside the comedian in 2011. Parker's Spurs teammate and countryman Boris Diaw is another. So are Olympic judo gold medalist Teddy Riner, Liverpool center back Mamadou Sakho, Manchester City midfielder Samir Nasri, tennis legend Yannick Noah, and others. Once this was publicized, these athletes quickly defaulted to damage control, making public apologies. Here's Parker's:
While this gesture has been part of French culture for many years, it was not until recently that I learned of the very negative concerns associated with it. When l 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 or harmful. Since I have been made aware of the seriousness of this gesture, I will certainly never repeat the gesture and sincerely apologize for any misunderstanding or harm relating to my actions. Hopefully this incident will serve to educate others that we need to be more aware that things that may seem innocuous can actually have a history of hate and hurt.
His apology was essentially the same as that of Anelka, Nasri, Sakho, and everyone else who's stepped forward. They somehow didn't know, they claim, that the quenelle, an inverted Nazi salute created by an anti-Semite, carried any offensive connotations. It seems impossible to believe.
Dieudonné is not some obscure figure. The comedian and successfulish actor, born to a black, Cameroonian father and white, French mother, got his break in the early 1990s as half of a two-man comedic act with partner, Élie Sémoun, who was—of course—Jewish. Dieudonné was always politically active in some form or another—he's run for president twice—and when he started out, he was vehemently anti-racist and pro-immigration. Somewhere along the way, though, as the New York Times reported in a June 2012 profile, the comedian befriended fringe leaders like Alain Soral and Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the nationalist, anti-immigration, far right-wing National Front. He's since referred to the Holcaust as "memorial pornography," praised Osama bin Laden and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and invited famed Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson with him onstage.
The vast majority of the French public agrees that the systematic murder of millions of European Jews is a real thing that actually happened, and therefore considers Dieudonné's incitement unacceptable. Once a rising star in comedy, he's now struggling to sell out small shows, on the fringes just like the detestable figures with whom he now rubs shoulders. And yet though he's now anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic, he insists that the quenelle, which will be five years old this year, is neither of those things. It is anti-establishment, he insists. Anti-The Man. It's easy to see how such a gesture could resonate with everyone from rebellious teenagers to fringe nationalists. It's also easy to see—and this is the key to the claims these athletes are making—how the comedian's disingenuous claims that the quenelle represents free thought rather than ethnic and religious hatred could obscure the issue.
Frenchman Arsène Wenger, manager of Arsenal, was recently asked about his old player Anelka's gesture. "Nobody knows really in France what it means," he said. His response mirrored Parker's apology, and to a lesser extent that of Anelka, who was less than apologetic:
"(The) meaning of quenelle: anti-system. I do not know what the word 'religion' has to do with this story!
"This is a dedication to Dieudonné. With regard to the ministers who give their own interpretations of my quenelle, they are the ones that create confusion and controversy without knowing what it really means, this gesture.
"I ask people not to be duped by the media. And of course, I am neither racist nor antisemitic and I fully assume (stand by) my gesture."
Wenger, Parker, and Anelka are wrong, though, to say that no one knows what the gesture means. The beauty, if that's what we can call it, of Dieudonné's quenelle is in its malleability—the very thing that has caused it to take on a life of its own. It is not meaningless; rather, it takes on different meanings to different people, which is why seemingly opposing groups like blacks, Arabs, and white supremacists, or the economically oppressed and millionaire athletes, all use it.
And behind it all is Dieudonné—the B-list actor, fringe political candidate, and silenced comedian whose influence lives on through the quenelle. Even if we don't know precisely what the gesture, so similar to a Nazi salute, means, anyone who knows who Dieudonné is knows what he stands for. And that leads us to the final, and maybe most important question: If Yannick Noah, Samir Nasri, Mamadou Sakho, Teddy Riner, Boris Diaw, Nicolas Anelka, and Tony Parker all know who Dieudonné is well enough to pose for private photographs with him, why exactly are they doing so?
Photo Credit: NovoPress