PARIS (AFP) - French footballer Nicolas Anelka on Sunday strongly defended a controversial gesture he made during a weekend match, saying "I am neither anti-Semite nor racist", even as British football authorities mulled possible punishment.
The 34-year-old West Bromwich Albion striker and former member of France's national team issued a series of tweets rejecting claims that the gesture he made Saturday was anti-Semitic or a thinly veiled Nazi-like salute, as many have interpreted.
His response came amid growing outrage online and internationally, and a risk that he could face match suspensions if England's Football Association finds his act racially offensive.
Anelka argued in his tweets that the gesture - in which he thrust his straightened right arm downwards while tapping his bicep with the other hand - was merely "anti-establishment".
"I don't know what religion has to do with it. Of course I'm not an anti-Semite or racist and (I) stand by my gesture." He also called on "people not to be duped by the media" which were "lumping together things and causing an argument without knowing what the gesture really means".
Anelka asserts the gesture was a dedication to a friend, a French comedian named Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala who has made the salute - which he calls a "quenelle", meaning a meat or fish dumpling - his signature.
Dieudonne, as he is widely known, has made overtly anti-Jewish remarks in public for years. He has been fined seven times for defamation, insult and provocation to hate, and for racial discrimination.
Diedonne claims his gesture only reflects his anti-establishment views, although it is widely interpreted as a Nazi-style or anti-Semitic action in France.
Anelka himself has marred his career with tantrums and controversial remarks. The footballer converted to Islam in 2004.
Condemnation in France
The Football Association told AFP Sunday that it would investigate the incident to determine if Anelka should be punished.
He could face a minimum five-ban match under a new anti-discriminatory disciplinary measures introduced in May.
French authorities have already condemned Anelka's on-field gesture.
French Sports Minister Valerie Fourneyron on Saturday called it a "shocking, sickening provocation" and said there was "no place for anti-Semitism and inciting hatred on the football pitch".
Interior Minister Manuel Valls is considering whether to ban all public appearances by Dieudonne.
Valls said Dieudonne was "no longer a comedian" but was rather an "anti-Semite and racist" who fell afoul of national laws against incitement to racial hatred.
President Francois Hollande said Valls was doing the right thing.
"We must approve and support the government and the interior minister in the face of words or actions whose anti-Semitic character cannot be denied," he told journalists during a visit to Saudi Arabia.
The European Jewish Congress has also criticised Anelka and called for him to face the same punishment that would be handed down for a Nazi salute.
"It is sickening that such a well-known footballer would make such an abusive and hateful gesture in front of tens of thousands of spectators," European Jewish Congress president Moshe Kantor said.
"There should be no room for such intolerance and racism in sports and we expect that the English Premier League officials as well as the police will give Anelka the appropriate punishment."
The latest to join the chorus of condemnation was the head imam of the Great Mosque of Paris who said Sunday he "strongly condemned any act or words of an anti-Semitic or racist nature in the sporting world".
Dalil Boubakeur said the "quenelle" was a "hybrid gesture between a Nazi salute and an inverted 'up yours' sign."
He said sports should represent "the highly humanist and universal values of peace, friendliness and fraternity".
The Union of Jewish Students in France also attacked Anelka's "cowardly support" for Dieudonne.
The comedian at the heart of the controversy meanwhile thanked Anelka in a tweet Sunday, saying "Bravo to Anelka for his 'quenelle'. Magnificent!!" But Dieudonne added that the quenelle was "not an anti-Semitic or Nazi sign".
Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the far-right, said in the Journal Du Dimanche Sunday newspaper that the "quenelle" was for some simply an "anti-establishment gesture" and for others "an anti-establishment gesture against a Jewish plot".
Dieudonne first used the "quenelle" publicly in 2009 while campaigning in the European elections.
Since then it has become his trademark and has been widely reproduced on the Internet and social media, at venues ranging from the Asterix theme park to the exterior of a synagogue.