Louis Farrakhan, watch out. Your slot on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s list of top 10 anti-Semites may soon go to an ancient fat man from Gaul and his short, blond friend.
The challengers are Obelix and Asterix, two characters from a popular French comic book series that offers a humorous depiction of first century French rural life.
Earlier this week, an image of the two superheroes — or rather, two men wearing giant suits depicting them — was published in the online edition of L’express daily. In it, the two men were seen performing the quenelle, the quasi-Nazi salute which is sweeping France. The image was taken at the Asterix theme park near Paris and went viral after being uploaded to Facebook.
The quenelle — the name for a gesture in which one places an outstretched left palm on the right shoulder — was invented by the anti-Semitic comedian Diedonne M’bala M’bala to both mock and circumvent France’s laws against displaying Nazi symbols by offering a subtler, non-prosecutable version.
Although it represents a new peak of absurdity, the Asterix/Obelix picture fits in with the quenelle spirit, which ridicules France’s restrictive laws on the promotion of the anti-Semitic hatred and other forms of racism.
The Asterix quenelle carries a special irony because the series was written by a French Jew, Rene Goscinny. After his passing in 1977, Goscinny’s friend and partner, Albert Uderzo, took over writing and, in a loving homage to Goscinny, created a Jewish character in his late friend’s image — a brave and helpful guide who leads Asterix through the Judaean Desert in “Asterix and the Black Gold,” the series’ 26th volume. The character is called Saul ben Ephishul — a name fans believe was invented to resemble the words “so beneficial” in English.
As the gesture’s popularity soared in recent months, some have taken to being photographed while performing the quenelle next to pineapples — a reference to an earlier invention by Dieudonne which combines the Hebrew word for Holocaust with the French word for pineapple, a coinage understood to cast doubt on the Holocaust without breaking the law prohibiting Holocaust denial.
But the gesture’s growing popularity has also generated growing opposition. Earlier this week, six French Jews were arrested in Lyon on suspicion that they assaulted a man they had allegedly tracked on Facebook for posing while performing the quenelle.
Heeding calls by representatives of French Jewish communities, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls announced Friday the government was looking into banning all public performances of Dieudonne. The theme park offered its apologies and claimed the actors were not familiar with the dark origins of the gesture, the park’s spokesperson said in a statement to L’express.
“Asterix and Obelix will remain apolitical,” the spokesperson promised.