A few weeks back, I wrote about how racist incidents on a football pitch can shine a bright light on our of society's ills. This week we have seen France's perpetually escalating social tensions come to the forefront of British sport.
Anelka insists that his quenelle salute was not a racist action, but merely a gesture of support to his anti-establishment friend and 'comedian' Dieudonné M'bala M'bala. His club's caretaker manager, Keith Downing, supported this, stating that 'it is dedicated to a French comedian he knows very, very well. He uses it in his act and I think speculation can be stopped now, it is absolute rubbish really'. The unequivocal support shown in that last sentence came as a surprise to me. Liverpool's mishandling of the Suarez-Evra incident, seemed like it would prompt a more circumspect response from clubs who are under this type of scrutiny. Quotes like 'the incident is being investigated and we don't wish to comment at this time', I would have expected from the manager. The need to support your own player is obvious, but to do so at the possible expense of a club's moral credibility is foolish.
The severity stems from the fact that their player has made a show of support to a man who is clearly anti-Semite. Dieudonné has been convicted six times for defamation, causing offence and inciting racial hatred. Moreover, the last conviction saw him receive a €28,000 fine over a song regarding 'Holocaust chicks'. Most shocking was his onstage comment aimed at radio journalist, Patrick Cohen - 'When the wind turns, I don't think he'll have time to pack a suitcase. When I hear Patrick Cohen talking, you see, I think of gas ovens'. Those who back the gesture, citing it as simply 'anti-establishment', do their chosen ideology a great disservice. Why not find another gesture, one not associated with an anti-Semite?
The decision the FA have to make is whether the gesture is racist by itself, extremely poor judgement or a valid expression of free speech? To my mind, the Anelka case will be treated similarly to that of Suarez. This case set a precedent that a lack of intent to be derogatory is not an acceptable defence. Given this, and the severity of his Dieudonné's previous comments, any actions associated with Dieudonné should be classified by the FA as 'insulting behaviour' and as having 'made reference to a person's ethnic origin'. Thus, like Suarez, Anelka will be in violation of both parts of Rule E3 and be subject to a minimum of a five game ban. In deciding the punishment the FA might be mindful that the case is less clear-cut than Suarez, as the association between the quenelle and racism in Britain is not as strong as the association between using the N word and racism in Britain. However equally, they could be concerned that a lighter punishment for Anelka would lead to a perception that racism towards Jews is more tolerable than racism towards black people.
Even if Anelka's lawyers can prove that there was no anti-Semitism in the gesture, he is still open to receive some sort of punishment as Fifa's rules make clear that political statements should play no part in football. If Anelka's gesture is not anti-Semitic, then it certainly could be linked to anti-establishment ideology. Another matter that has been less well reported is that the FA also have decisions to make regarding Samir Nasri, who has previously tweeted a picture of him performing the salute in front of a Manchester City crest and Yannick Sagbo, who tweeted a picture of the celebration and described the striker as a 'legend' for using it. Such a situation can hardly have been the start to 2014 that the FA were wishing for.