Two high-profile French athletes are in the spotlight for using an anti-semitic gesture

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Let’s talk now about a controversy involving a provocative French comedian, a soccer player in England, and an NBA star here in the US. For sports fans around the world, the controversy surfaced this past weekend. That’s when a player in England’s high-profile soccer Premiere League celebrated scoring a goal with an arm salute. But its meaning is what has a lot of people pretty concerned. The World’s William Troop was watching the game. What did you see, William?

William Troop: Well, I saw this player, Nicolas Anelka, he’s a French national but he plays in England, scoring his goal and I saw him do sort of a very low-key celebration, it seemed to me. He was pointing his right arm down, straight-armed salute, but pointing down, and then bringing his other hand across his chest and touching his shoulder. And all I thought was gee, that was a weird celebration. But I didn't think anything of it, until later that day, I saw the explosion of controversy over this gesture.

Werman: So what is this gesture? What is this downward straight-arm salute?

Troop: Well, it was invented by a French comedian named Dieudonné, and he says that it’s an anti-establishment gesture, sort of a finger in the eye of the powers-that-be in France. But it has a whole other connotation as well. Dieudonné has been controversial in France. He’s been convicted of anti-Semitic hate speech several times, and this gesture that he says is anti-establishment has actually been picked up by far-right groups and neo-Nazi groups, some of whose members are posting pictures online of themselves doing the gesture in front of Jewish temples or Jewish schools. So it really carries a very, very loaded imagery.

Werman: Right. So Nicolas Anelka can’t just score a goal and make this gesture and everybody thinks it’s all fine. What has he said about why he did it?

Troop: Well, he says that he’s just friends with Dieudonné, and he was just expressing his support for the comedian, but not a lot of people believe him.

Werman: So outrage ensues. The story doesn't end there though because it spread to an American basketball player now.

Troop: Well the basketball player in question is also French. Tony Parker plays for San Antonio in the NBA. Next thing you know, a picture surfaces of him with the comedian Dieudonné, and they’re doing the gesture together. So he was called upon immediately by Jewish groups here in the US to explain, and he said that he was pictured with the comedian three years ago doing this gesture, which he thought was just part of his comedy act, and had no idea about all the connotations around it, so he said he will never do it again and he apologized for it. And, by the way, Anelka over in England has also promised not to do the gesture again.

Werman: So what’s the news in France, William, where both Dieudonné and Anelka are from? Is this causing a lot of uproar there?

Troop: Well, it turns out all of this is happening not just out of the blue. Dieudonné has been in the spotlight after he gave a very controversial interview, in which he used the words “gas chambers” when he was talking about a Jewish broadcast journalist in France. And after he made that comment, the French government said that it was looking into the possibility of banning him outright from performing, because it says this man is no longer just a comedian.

Werman: William, as far as racial abuse on the soccer field, it’s happened a lot in Europe in recent years. There’s usually uproar, officials say the racism has to end, but then there’s another episode like this one. Why’s it so hard to get that under control?

Troop: I think part of it is because the stage of European soccer is just so big, so high-profile, that it’s hard to keep people from using that stage. But this case is also strangely backwards. It involves a black player who performed a racist gesture. Not what has been in the news recently from Europe, which is racial abuse aimed at black players, usually from white fans. So it’s a little bit different from what you've been hearing.

Werman: The World’s William Troop, thank you so much.

Troop: You’re welcome.