The leader of the French Jewish community was forced into a dramatic U-turn on Wednesday after giving a TV interview defending footballer Nicolas Anelka and his use of the controversial salute known as the ‘quenelle.’

Hours earlier, the French striker was charged by the Britain’s Football Association for performing a gesture described as “an inverted Nazi salute” in honour of a comedian friend known for his anti-Semitic views.

But Roger Cukierman, head of French Jewish organisation CRIF (Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions) and Vice-President of the World Jewish Congress appeared on TV saying: “It seems a bit exaggerated to charge him.”

He added: “When the gesture is done playing on the soccer field it’s not at all as if it was made in front of a synagogue or in front of a memorial concerning the Holocaust. It cannot be interpreted clearly as an anti-Semitic gesture because it’s done in a soccer field and it can be only interpreted as a gesture against the establishment.”

It left British Jewish community leaders lost for words and scrambling for a clarification from Cukierman, which was later issued.

“I wished, perhaps too quickly, to demonstrate the importance of exercising discretion,” Cukierman said subsequently. “Should we be severe? Certainly – it glorifies a crime against humanity.”

Despite the retraction, the footballer – who defends his actions – used it to aid his case, posting the video of Cukierman online, saying: “Nothing to add.”

It was the latest twist to the controversy which began when Anelka performed the salute after scoring for Premier League club West Bromwich Albion at the end of December.

French ministers came down hard, branding Anelka’s quenelle “disgusting” and acknowledging its anti-Semitic meaning. Pictures of other sports stars and fans began appearing online, with some performing the quenelle outside the Auschwitz gates and other memorials.

After a three-week investigation, in which the FA hired an academic expert to advise it on the meaning and usage of the quenelle, the ruling body charged the striker with misconduct on Tuesday morning.

It alleges that Anelka “made a gesture which was abusive and/or indecent and/or insulting and/or improper. It is further alleged that this is an aggravated breach, in that it included a reference to ethnic origin and/or race and/or religion or belief.”

The 34-year-old, who has until today to respond, now faces a possible five match ban, which could be increased to ten games if a new European agreement is implemented.

Despite Anelka’s protestations of innocence, the charges were greeted with relief from Jewish community leaders, who had been pressing for action.

“This is clearly the right decision,” said Board of Deputies’ Vice-President Jonathan Arkush. “We support the FA in treating this incident seriously and we look to them to follow through with equal determination.”

The CST welcomed the decision to charge the player with “an aggravated breach of FA rules”, saying: “We simply could not have accepted any other outcome.

“Anelka has introduced a very ugly phenomenon into British football. His action risks the ‘quenelle’ being taken up by actual anti-Semites and used against British Jews, as it has been in France and elsewhere. The FA should throw the book at him.”