We don't have any idea whether soccer star Nicolas Anelka is a racist or an anti-Semite. Until yesterday he had no record of being either. One thing is certain: He is no fool. In the wake of his celebration of the first of two goals he scored for West Bromwich Albion against West Ham United on Saturday, using the "quenelle" - a wink-wink disguised version of the Nazi salute - he didn't issue any apologies or denials. His explanation on his Facebook page and Twitter account that "this gesture was just a special dedication to my comedian friend Dieudonne" seems genuine enough. The friendship between the soccer player and the stand-up comedian is well-known and while keeping company with one of France's most notorious anti-Semites is hardly to his credit, it isn't something that he can be indicted for.
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Some have suggested this is simply another example of that well-known malady Athlete's Stupidity. But Anelka isn't one of those millionaires barely out of their teens caught in the folly of youth. He is 34, after a long career at the top level of world soccer, playing in some of the best teams in France, England, Spain, Italy, Turkey and China, and is now planning his second career. He has mentioned in interviews in the past that he would like to go into the movie business with his friend Dieudonne M'bala M'bala.
This incident can't be put down to naiveté. Anelka knows exactly what his friend and his trademark gesture the quenelle stand for - it is a signal of the Holocaust denier's protest against the "memorial pornography" of what he has called the "Shoa-anana." Anelka has played at clubs owned and managed by Jews. For a short period his manager was Israeli Avram Grant (with whom he had a bad relationship according to both sides, though neither one ever suggested that it had anything to do with Grant's religion). But Anelka's feelings toward the Jewish people are a very minor issue.
An extremely gifted player, Anelka will not be remembered as one of the beautiful game's greats - though he had the skill to be one - not because of the latest scandal but because he lacked dedication and discipline. He never seemed to give a real damn, rarely settled down for long at any club and fought with many of his managers who often left him on the bench, most famously with the French national coach, Raymond Domenech. An expletive-laden tirade against Domenech led to his shipping home in the middle of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
On the whole, it is not surprising that it was Anelka who introduced the quenelle to English soccer. Now playing at West Bromwich, close to the bottom of the league table and far past his prime, Saturday's goals were his first this season. This scandal fits in nicely with his bad-boy, anti-authoritarian image and prepares him for a new career in the wilder extremes of French show-business and perhaps even politics. In the first hours after the incident, it drew much more attention in Anelka's native France than in England where it had occurred.
Not that racism in soccer is a non-issue in England, quite the opposite. The captains of two of the most successful clubs, John Terry at Chelsea and Luis Suarez at Liverpool were both banned in the previous season for racist insults against black players, while the self-proclaimed fascist Paolo Di Canio (who back in his playing days delighted fans of Italian club Lazio with his own "Roman" salutes) actually managed a Premier League club this season. He was eventually sacked - for the lack of success of his authoritarian style of training.
But Dieudonne is a peculiarly French phenomenon - a successful comic, who despite his blatant anti-Semitism and periodic fines for hate-speech found a home first in the radical left and then effortlessly shifted to the far-right National Front. Of course, he denies the quenelle is anti-Semitic and claims it is just anti-establishment. Though his Jew-hatred is well documented and needs no proving, he has hit a nerve.
In most European societies, the taboo surrounding any Nazi imagery has become almost devoid of meaning, more an edict of political correctness imposed by authority and society than any meaningful exercise against racism. The rash of photographs put up on social media websites of grinning young men doing the quenelle with Jewish-related sites such as synagogues or even the Auschwitz death camp in the background, could perhaps constitute an outbreak of Judeophobia. But despite the widespread hysteria, the statistics don't reflect a corresponding rise in actual anti-Semitic attacks. It seems rather unlikely that each and every person posting a quenelle selfie on his Facebook page is necessarily anti-Semitic.
The quenelle has arguably become something more amorphous; a subversive "fuck-you" signal of a disaffected generation to authority. In today's France, for many young people Jews and liberal sensitivities regarding racism and the imagery of the Holocaust and World War Two are symbols of the suffocating society and repressive establishment.
It is so unfashionable in polite company in western Europe nowadays to be anti-Semitic that in some circles it may have begun to seem cool and daring to go the other way. The blanket condemnation of Anelka in France, including by the Senior Imam of Paris, is encouraging and he will almost certainly be disciplined severely also by the English Football Association. His sporting career will be over soon and no-one will miss him. Hopefully the wider public will understand the quenelle's real sinister meaning.
Further down the road, the way to counter Dieudonne's malignant influence is through education, not hysteria. The calls by some French-Jewish politicians to outlaw the quenelle are misguided. Nothing could do more to make it seem even hipper. It's not enough to say that racism is wrong, the message must be that it's uncool.