Does French Jewry’s leader think fighting the quenelle is futile?

(JTA) – As the third-term president of French Jewry’s main body, Roger Cukierman is pretty good at spotting xenophobia.

And as a former top banker with a doctorate in economics, he’s not bad at recognizing bad investments, either.

These two skills may be key to understanding a series of conflicting statements by Cukierman this past month about the quenelle — a gesture with Nazi undertones that was invented by an anti-Semite but whose use French Jews and politicians have been powerless to stop because of the quenelle’s ambiguity.

Over the past month, Cukierman has called the quenelle a worrisome Nazi salute but then said it was sometimes neither worrisome nor punishable, until he finally again called it a punishable Nazi salute.

Cukierman’s uncertainty may be less about the quenelle itself and more as to whether fighting it is a winnable battle in which it is worth investing. But either way, his qualms resulted in what is being perceived as a bad case of the shivers when the chips are already very much on the table.

Cukierman’s quenelle conundrum began on Dec. 17, in a filmed interview in which he described it as a Nazi salute “which is taking our youth in a terrible direction, because Nazism is no joke.” But he also recognized that many quenelle fans –- and French media reports that there are many thousands of them — don’t get the Nazi connotations at all.

But this week, when the quenelle was already in the spotlight in major French media, Cukierman appeared to soften his stance. In an interview for Le Figaro he said the quenelle was an acceptable defiance against the establishment as long as it had no Jewish connection. After that statement received huge coverage, he issued a third statement in which he again called the quenelle a “Nazi salute reversed” and advocated getting tough on anyone performing it. He also denied ever softening his position.


So are leading French activists against anti-Semitism like Philippe Karsenty. He posted some of Cukierman’s statements on Facebook, assuring readers that “This is not a joke.”

Indeed, at this point, Cukierman’s words may have serious consequences for the career of a star athlete; a senior politician and the comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, the quenelle’s inventor and a career anti-Semite who is attempting, with some success, to redefine the borders of free speech in France with shenanigans like the quenelle.

All this weight reached a critical mass on Jan. 22 because of a decision by England’s Football Association to charge the star athlete, Frenchman Nicolas Anelka, with a racially aggravated breach of conduct. He performed the quenelle on Dec. 28 during a soccer match in Britain after scoring a goal for his English team. The allegation could end his career.

His team, West Bromwich Albion, has already lost a $4.9-million sponsor over his quenelle and may lose a second contract, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Then there’s France’s interior minister, Manuel Valls, whose reputation is on the line because, after discussing it with CRIF officials, he called the quenelle: “an anti-Semitic gesture and all those who perform it should know —- they can’t deny knowledge —- that they are performing an anti-Semitic gesture of hate, an inverted Nazi gesture.”

Oh, and there’s also Meyer Habib, former CRIF vice president and a lawmaker in French parliament, who has announced plans to submit a bill to ban the quenelle under France’s laws against displaying Nazi symbols. His former boss’ misgivings may have complicated the task.

So what made Cukierman pull the rug from under so many feet so late in the game?

The answer may be buried in the Dec. 17 interview by Cukierman – a man who, despite his reputation as a hardliner, is not known for fighting battles he can’t win.

Asked whether CRIF was considering legal action against people who perform the quenelle, Cukierman said in the interview: “We’re thinking about it. But it’s so easy to claim that it’s not anti-Semitic, that I doubt that we will arrive at a result on this point.”

As for Anelka, he posted on his Twitter account a link to the interview in which Cukierman said that the quenelle is not necessarily anti-Semitic and wrote: “Nothing to add.” Of course, he has added, and cited Cukierman’s statement in requesting the Football Association scrap the complaint against him.

Cukierman responded by giving another interview on the quenelle (the fourth so far, but who’s counting) for the RTL radio network on Jan. 23, in which he said he does not support letting Anelka off the hook because his quenelle was an act of solidarity with Dieudonne –- who is an anti-Semite who should be condemned instead of being praised.

Cnaan Liphshiz is JTA’s news and features correspondent in Europe. Based in the Netherlands, he covers the mosaic of cultures, languages and traditions that is European Jewry. Born in Israel, he used to work as foireign news editor for Ma’ariv and as a reporter for Haaretz.