Friday, Jan. 3, 2014 | 4:54 p.m.
PARIS — It's caught on like a dance move — one hand pointing downward, the other touching the shoulder with an arm across the chest. But for many, the gesture popularized by a French comic is hateful and anti-Semitic.
Now, France's top security official wants to ban him from the stage.
Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala has a small but faithful following of fans from disparate walks of life. Some are marginalized immigrants from France's housing projects. Some are Muslims. Some are even adherents of the far-right.
But Dieudonne's profile has soared since the gesture, dubbed the "quenelle," went viral in recent months.
To Interior Minister Manuel Valls, it is an "inverted Nazi salute." He is exploring ways to ban gatherings he says threaten public order as a means of keeping the comic from performing.
But Dieudonne, who goes only by his first name, is adamant the quenelle — named for a fish dumpling eaten in some parts of the country — is an anti-establishment sign meaning "shove it."
Valls' critics caution that going after the comic has the whiff of a witch-hunt and fear it may endanger a fundamental right to freedom of speech.
The 47-year-old Dieudonne (pronounced DYEU-dun-ay) has been convicted more than a half-dozen times for inciting racial hatred or anti-Semitism over the years.
He was most recently convicted last fall for using the word "Shoananas," a mash-up of the Hebrew word for Holocaust and the French word for pineapple, seen as making light of the Holocaust.
An investigation also opened this week after Dieudonne allegedly made an anti-Semitic slur toward a Jewish journalist on France-Inter radio. "When I hear him (the journalist) talk, you see ... I say to myself gas chambers ... A pity," Dieudonne said during a performance last month, parts of which were shown on French TV.
"I think 2014 will be the year of the quenelle," Dieudonne said in a video posted this week on You Tube. In that video, Dieudonne also denied he is anti-Semitic: "There's a misunderstanding. I don't say I won't be one day. I leave that possibility open."
Soccer star Nicolas Anelka used the quenelle recently to celebrate a goal, and basketball star Tony Parker did it years ago. Both said they did not understand it was an anti-Semitic gesture. Parker said in a mea culpa released by the San Antonio Spurs that he "thought it was part of a comedy act."
But a photo posted on French news sites shows a man doing the quenelle in front of the Jewish school in Toulouse where an Islamic extremist gunned down three children and a rabbi in March 2012. Another showed two soldiers saluting in front of a Paris synagogue.
One photo shows the interior minister surrounded by youth doing the quenelle at a September inauguration, clearly without his knowledge.
Sociologist Michel Wieviorka wrote a commentary in Thursday's Le Monde arguing that Dieudonne's mixed-bag audience has a common denominator — anti-Semitism.
"How does he please the nationalist extreme right as much as recently immigrated populations ...? The paradox is resolved (via) anti-Semitism, which ... brings together people that otherwise are separated by everything," he wrote.
The hand sign is ambiguous since it so closely resembles a "bras d'honneur," a vulgar gesture used in France that is the equivalent of giving the finger.
Requests for an interview with Dieudonne, or his lawyers, went unanswered on Friday.
For the moment, the bid to silence Dieudonne looks like a tug-of-war between the interior minister and the comic. But Valls is getting support from some cities where shows are to be staged.
The mayor of the eastern city of Nancy, Andre Rossinot, issued a statement Thursday saying that when free expression "transforms into racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic propaganda there is reason to react."
Rossinot has asked the state representative to try to ban a Dieudonne appearance there on Jan. 18. Nearby Metz and the southern city of Marseille are looking for ways to keep him from coming to town.
France has issued bans in the past, directed toward Muslim women with veiled faces and head scarves in classrooms. But never has an entertainer been the object of a blanket ban. Such a move worries some people.
"One must act, but the method chosen by Manuel Valls does not appear to be" well-chosen, the daily Le Monde quoted Malek Boutih, the former head of SOS-Racism, a leading anti-racism group, as saying. "In several days, he has given a lot of publicity to Dieudonne, who is a worrisome pro-Nazi, but not influential."
Aline Le Bail-Kremer, a spokeswoman for the group, said freedom of expression is not a concern because racist or anti-Semitic remarks are against the law in France. "That is not freedom of expression," she said of Dieudonne's performances. "It's the jungle."
Yet she voiced concern that a ban, if not legally sound, could prove counterproductive.
In Internet videos, the comic mocks the justice system, and his court losses, and calls on fans to donate to help his cause.
But the videos include sketches making light of the Holocaust. In one, Dieudonne portrays an American soldier getting a tour of Auschwitz from an inmate at the death camp. The video, washed in old-time sepia hues, is accompanied by the jingling music of a player piano.
Dieudonne originally rose to fame as part of a comedy duo with the noted Jewish comedian Elie Semoun. The two regularly parodied everyday racism and discrimination in France before they fell out.
Years later, Dieudonne befriended the founder of the far-right National Front party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is godfather to one of his children.
Extreme-right expert Sylvain Crepon said he does not see Dieudonne as a major threat to public order
"I think he remains sociologically marginal," Crepon said.