On Saturday afternoon, beneath an overcast sky in the hamlet of Saint-Lubin-de-la-Haye (pop. 908) in northern France, about 1,000 people gathered in a tree-lined field for an event that has become an annual fixture in the social calendar of French Holocaust deniers, conspiracy theorists and other assorted extremists: the “Bal des Quenelles.”
Hosted by France’s most brazen antisemite — the propagandist and entertainer Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala — the ball is named in honor of the “quenelle,” an inverted Nazi-style salute he devised in 2009 as part of the election campaign for his now defunct Anti-Zionist Party. At past quenelle balls, Dieudonné’s honorees included the late Robert Faurisson, once the gray eminence of the Holocaust denial world.
This year’s ball featured notable antisemites from both ends of the age spectrum. Among the veteran Jew-haters spotted was the 93-year-old Jean Marie Le Pen, the founder of the neo-fascist National Front (FN) Party, along with his faithful lieutenant Bruno Gollnisch, a former member of the European Parliament. Representing the younger generation at the ball were Chloé Frammery, a high-school teacher and noted COVID-19 conspiracy theorist; Jérôme Bourbon, editor of the far-right magazine Rivarol; and Hervé Ryssen, a propagandist who has described Jews as a “people of incest,” and who was convicted in Sept. 2020 for Holocaust denial, a crime under French law.
Video of Saturday’s ball showed Dieudonné in high spirits as he regaled the audience from his podium, lapping up the appreciative laughter and applause from the mainly white crowd. Yet his bravura wasn’t able to wish away the previous day’s news: a court in Paris had sentenced Dieudonné to three years in prison, two of them suspended, after finding him guilty of a range of financial crimes that included tax fraud, money laundering, abuse of corporate assets and fraudulently filing for bankruptcy. The court also ordered him to pay several thousand euros in compensation to the French Union of Jewish Students (UEJF) and the League Against Racism and Antisemitism (LICRA) for previous offenses against both organizations.
Media coverage of Friday’s court announcement cemented the impression that Dieudonné’s once vibrant antisemitic propaganda operation was grinding to a halt, less than a year after he was permanently booted from Facebook, Instagram and YouTube for promoting antisemitic hate speech. Yet it largely overlooked the most sinister aspect of Dieudonné’s various fiscal scams: his promotion of a cryptocurrency called the “Sestrel,” which bills itself in its white paper as a vital “arm of the resistance in occupied France.”
A past master of deceit, Dieudonné has aggressively marketed the Sestrel to his fanbase not only as a tool of political revolt, but also as a wise investment. The agitator has been pushing the Sestrel since 2019, when he appeared in a video extolling the coin that featured him sitting at a desk next to three pineapples — the “Shoah-nanas” meme Dieudonné invented to demean the Nazi Holocaust, which combines the Hebrew term for “Holocaust” with the French word for “pineapple.”
Over the weekend, as news of his conviction spread, Dieudonné inundated his email list with appeals to “invest” in the Sestrel, brandishing a 15 percent discount as an enticement.
“If you don’t buy now, you’ll have to wait until the end of the year, at a more expensive price!” he cautioned his followers. “If you’ve already bought some, it’s time to buy some more!” For any readers still hesitating at this point, he exhorted, “Join this project of emancipation which disrupts the finance lobby!”
There is, of course, one problem: the Sestrel has no value to begin with, so any talk of discounts is part of the con.
“Dieudonné is used to asking his cronies to pay for everything: his fines, his legal fees, his personal expenses,” Jonathan-Simon Sellem, a former journalist who has extensively investigated Dieudonné, told The Algemeiner. “Even though history has proved that he is a millionaire and that he is hiding money everywhere. Once in a while, he creates a new idea to raise money, which he puts in his pocket.”
With an ironic laugh, Sellem added: “What he attacks the Jews for, he does himself! Any expert on cryptocurrency will tell you that the Sestrel white paper is full of bullshit. It’s just a means for Dieudonné to accumulate more cash.”
Antisemites are often adept at inserting themselves into broader social movements, twisting the message so that excessive corporate profits, or environmental degradation, or the erosion of civil rights, or whatever the cause happens to be, is blamed on “Jewish” control of the banks, the government and the “deep state.” In that sense, the world of cryptocurrency — which increasingly positions itself in opposition to the present financial system — is no exception.
To be sure, the hostility to traditional banking common among digital currency advocates isn’t itself based upon conspiracy theory, but on an appreciation of the revolutionary potential of the blockchain technology pioneered by Bitcoin, the granddaddy of cryptos. The blockchain is an electronic ledger that enables parties to conduct recorded, verifiable transactions without an intermediary.
Much of the Sestrel’s marketing material echoes these very same themes of transparency and individual freedom — giving the impression that, like Bitcoin, this coin can be both a store of value and a means of exchange outside the orbit of governments and banks. The same materials highlight the Sestrel’s use of the decentralized Ethereum network in a separately clumsy attempt to piggyback on the recent success of Ether, that network’s token. As a recent article on crypto website Coindesk pointed out, “While the promise of Ethereum is tantalizing to proponents of the technology, it’s an open-source platform, meaning the projects built upon it are often experimental and sometimes outright scams.”
As is the case in many countries, cryptocurrency regulations are virtually non-existent in France, which according to research by the US Library of Congress has passed two ordinances related to the use of blockchain and nothing else. For Dieudonné to push the Sestrel among the some 4,000 so-called “alt coins” in existence (also known as “meme coins” or more bluntly, “shitcoins”) may be dishonest, but it is not technically illegal.
Accurate day-to-day financial information about the Sestrel’s performance is difficult to obtain, but according to one online crypto information source, there are 2,332 holders of the coin. Following the announcement of Dieudonné’s prison sentence on Friday, there was an uptick in trading over the weekend, with over 3,000 Sestrel coins transferred.
This level of activity is a far cry from Dieudonné’s ultimate ambition for the Sestrel. His grand plan, according to a Dec. 2019 article in the French financial news outlet Capital, had been to sell the limited supply of 27 million coins at an arbitrarily-set price of two euros each. While he waxed lyrical about the untold benefits of the Sestrel for “communities of resistance” wishing to trade with each other directly, the scheme would have netted Dieudonné nearly 60 million old-fashioned, “fiat currency” euros.
A number of meme coins, most famously Doge, are available for purchase on mainstream cryptocurrency exchanges, but the Sestrel is not among them. According to Capital, “it is possible to buy them by credit card via Indacoin, an unscrupulous third-party application,” and buyers can also call a dedicated information line run by “a mysterious ‘Hervé’, who will convince you by phone.” The pleading emails sent out by Dieudonné over the weekend directed potential buyers to the Sestrel’s own website, suggesting that, two years after its launch, none of the conventional crypto exchanges are willing to touch it.
None of this is good news for the holders of Sestrel, whose “investment” is highly unlikely to be recouped, whether via a sale back into fiat currency or through conversion into another crypto coin. According to Tristan Mendes-France, an expert on French extremism, the Sestrel should be understood as a “political project” that seduces buyers with an additional, empty promise of turning a profit on crypto speculation.
“Dieudonné advocates an ultra-nationalist ideological discourse, while stirring the fantasy of an all-powerful financial elite that controls the state and the justice system,” Mendes-France told Capital. “He ticks all the boxes of the conspiracy discourse to cast a wide net and appeal to deniers and people in favor of alternative medicine — anti-vaccine activists for example — and even some members of the yellow vests movement.”
The prospect of using of random cryptocurrencies to finance political activities, alongside luxurious lifestyles that would otherwise be unattainable, will continue to attract extremists. Whether Dieudonné’s excursion into the crypto world is held up as a cautionary tale or an inspirational one is an almost academic consideration; the real question is if future antisemitic agitators will manage to pull off a crypto scam that is more successful than the Sestrel has been.