, PARIS, Feb 9 – French parfumier Jean-Paul Guerlain, for decades the “nose” of the world-famous perfume brand, told a court on Thursday he was not racist and that his comment about black people being lazy was a stupid joke.
Guerlain was on trial on racism charges after remarks he made in a television interview caused widespread offence.
“I very deeply regret (the remarks) and I offer my apologies to the black community for this idiocy,” he told the Paris court. “I wanted to make the journalist laugh and I regret it.”
“I am anything but racist,” said the 75-year-old, who walked into the court on crutches, adding that he had first tasted chewing gum and Coca Cola thanks to black US soldiers in France at the end of World War II.
Guerlain said that the fact that he had spent much time in France’s former colonies in west Africa – seeking raw materials for his perfumes – was further proof that he was not racist.
The incident that landed him in court came in October 2010 when he was interviewed by public television channel France 2 about how he created the Samsara scent.
Guerlain replied using a racial slur – the French term “negre” – and implied that black people are lazy.
“For once, I set to work like a negro. I don’t know if negroes have always worked like that, but anyway…” he said.
The incident sparked widespread condemnation, with anti-racism groups saying it highlighted deep prejudice in French society.
The heir to one of the world’s oldest perfume houses, who appeared in court on charges of making “racist insults”, faces up to six months in prison and a 22,500 euro ($30,000) fine.
France’s Movement Against Racism and for Friendship (MRAP) said his remarks revealed “the state of ordinary racism that still permeates French society.”
Guerlain apologised but protests erupted outside the company’s boutique on the Champs Elysees in Paris and there were calls for a boycott of Guerlain and its owner, luxury brand giant Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH).
“I offer my apologies to all those who might have been hurt by my shocking words,” Guerlain said in a statement after the interview. He said the comments “in no way reflect my true thinking, but were a slip of the tongue.”
The Guerlain company also distanced itself from the remarks, saying his words were “unacceptable” and noting that Guerlain had not been a shareholder since 1996 or on salary since 2002.
Guerlain took over the family perfume house from his grandfather, Jacques, in 1959, by which time he could recognise 3,000 subtly different smells.
The perfume house was run by the Guerlain family for five generations and created over 300 fragrances since doctor and chemist Pierre Francois Pascal Guerlain opened his first perfume boutique in Paris 183 years ago.
LVMH purchased the company in 1994 and Guerlain remained as master perfumer until he retired in 2002.
During his time at the company he was hailed as one of the great perfume “noses” of the 20th century and created famous scents including Samsara, Nahema and Jardins de Bagatelle.