Obama 'La Quenelle' Photo Ignites Furor, Though It's Really Nothing

on December 31 2013 1:07 PM
La Quenelle
A controversy has erupted over a image of President Barack Obama (third from right), Jay-Z (left) and Beyonce (right) that some believe depicts them performing the offensive "la quenelle" gesture but is in fact just an image of them "brushing the dirt off their shoulders." Twitter

The ongoing controversy over French comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala's "la quenelle" gesture, which has been described by Jewish advocacy groups as "anti-Semitic" and a “Nazi salute in reverse,” continues to rage, bringing President Barack Obama into the frenzy over the weekend in a development that generated attention on New Year's Eve in the American press and on social media sites.

The gesture, which involves pointing one straightened arm downward while touching that arm’s shoulder with the opposite hand, has gained popularity as fans of the comedian, who goes by just his first name on stage, have taken to adopting it to show solidarity with his offensive brand of comedy. It has been adopted by a number of anti-Semitic groups and individuals, some of whom have even posed photos of themselves performing it at the Auschwitz concentration camp and the Berlin Holocaust memorial.

Nicoloas Anelka, a soccer player for the English Premier League's West Brom team, attracted widespread criticism after he flashed the "la quenelle" salute after scoring a goal against West Ham over the weekend. In the days since then, he tried to downplay his decision to do so in face of condemnation by the EPL by denying it was anti-Semitic and tweeting that it was "was just a special dedication to my comedian friend Dieudonné." NBA player Tony Parker has also come under fire in recent days, as a photo has emerged of the San Antonio Spurs star doing the gesture alongside the comedian.

But the latest stateside controversy, which for some reason took a couple of days to erupt in the U.S., surrounds a photo Anelka tweeted on Saturday of President Barack Obama, Jay Z and Beyonce that he seemed to believe was of them doing the "la quenelle" salute. But anyone with even a modicum of pop-culture knowledge would immediately know that the powerful trio were actually just doing Jay Z's famous "brush your shoulder off" move, and an Atlanta Black Star news report that accompanied the photo in 2012 confirms that reading of the image. Besides, the arms are reversed in the Obama photo.

None of that seems to matter to conservatives and other folks who appear dead-set on linking the president to the offensive gesture, as was evident online Tuesday.

For instance, Twitter user @jdl_uk_official accused Obama of being a Nazi in the following tweet: "#France #US What is the #quenelle salute and why are Nazis Barack #Obama and Tony Parker using it?"

And tweeter @coondawg68 also appeared to be accepting the concept that the gesture is in fact a "la quenelle" salute at face value in the following tweet: "Barack Obama, JayZ, Beyonce perform anti-Semitic 'quenelle' salute."

And even some news sites have run the rumors without questioning them. In a story on the growing controversy, Sports news site IWorldCup.org wrote the following: "Anelka also posted a picture of President Obama along with rapper Jay Z and his singer wife Beyonce also performing a similar salute." But the site failed to include a clarifying sentence explaining that it was just a harmless gesture.

However, some clear-headed Twitter users appeared to understand that it is all a misunderstanding. Take @judeinlondon, who attempted to clear the air with this tweet: "That Obama/Beyonce/Jay-Z picture... People *know* that's a "dirt off your shoulder" reference & not la quenelle right? Right?"

The niche international appeal of the gesture has become a flashpoint in France as Jewish groups express outrage at Dieudonné over offensive remarks he has made, including ones describing Holocaust remembrance events as "memorial pornography" and suggesting Radio France personality Patrick Cohen -- who is Jewish -- should leave the country, the Guardian reported.

“It's the Nazi salute in reverse,” Roger Cukierman, head of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, or CRIF, said after a number of Jewish advocacy groups expressed outrage over Dieudonné to French President Francois Hollande last week. “Very clearly, Mr. Dieudonne is developing a nearly professional anti-Semitism under the cover of telling jokes.”

In response to the Jewish group's complaints to Hollande, France's Interior Minister Manuel Valls announced on Friday that the country's government is considering banning performances by Dieudonné, who is half-French and half-Cameroonian and ran for the European Parliament in 2009 as part of the far-right “Anti-Zionist List,” Reuters reported.

"Dieudonne M'bala M'bala doesn't seem to recognize any limits any more," Valls said in a statement quoted by the Guardian. "From one comment to the next, as he has shown in several television shows, he attacks the memory of Holocaust victims in an obvious and unbearable way.”

France has experienced rising levels of intimidation and violence against its Jewish population in recent years, hitting a low point in March 2012, when a rabbi and three students were killed at a Jewish school in Toulouse.

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