The elegant 75-year-old [Jean-Paul] Guerlain told the court it was an "imbecilic" remark. "I am from another generation," he said, so part of the remark was "a common expression at the time." He also said he did so during a TV interview because he "wanted to make the journalist laugh and I regret it." "I was anything but racist," he said, standing before the court with the help of crutches.
— Perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain, who was on trial in France yesterday for a racist remark he made in an interview in October 2010. Read more at Guerlain perfume heir accused of racism in trial at Yahoo.
If you wish to comment, I do ask that you be civil, and if you're not familiar with our commenting policy, now is as good a time as any to check it out. I ended up closing the comments to the original post on this issue back in 2010, and I'll probably do so again today — nothing is served by readers arguing with each other over what everyone agrees is a regrettable incident.
I stand by his declaration.
As someone who grew surrounded with old people….grandparents and great-aunts and uncles, these kind of expressions we very common and did not denote, IMHO, racism.
Of course now, aplying the lens of political correctness it sounds barbaric. But when I was a kid, an adult would say “Trabajé como un negro” (I worked like a black man) to denote he had worked very hard and strenuously. Of course this harks back to times of slavery, but these are phrases that when repeated over time, loose the context. This is not a justification, just an explanation. I guess he was singled out as an example.
I think he is learning from this, and to do that and to publicly recognize that what he did is not currently accepted, at his age, I think is very good.
I too grew up with that particular expression, it was used regularly by my grandparents’ generation, and was not meant disparagingly, it was used to compliment somebody who worked very hard. Of course nowadays we’re more aware of the way we use language.
It is a most unfortunate way to end his career — I would agree with his lawyer that the notoriety has been punishment enough. Very sad.
Frankly, I was more disturbed by his off hand comment in the BBC Perfume series that he remembers the day f the Nazi invasion of France fondly because he remembers how well the cake his mother baked for him smelled. (The comments about the smell and the cake and the comment that the invasion took place on his birthday were at separate points in the conversation, but still). We all know that Channel developed a working relationship with invaders (while also manufacturing the perfumes in the US and getting them sold in stores reserved for American military members). Some of us know that key (jewish) Caron executives did not survive the war. I don’t know the history of the Guerlain house during the war.
I don’t give JEAN PAUL a free pass on the working like a Nigress comment, either. Still to prosecute someone for such comments is a bit ridiculous.
The cake comment did not bother me at all — it was a childhood memory.
^Doesn’t bother me, either. I don’t get the fanfare.
Yes – I think it probably should be taken in that context in this case. That generational usage extends to a lot of terms that are seen as simply not PC anymore, but common enough once. The other day my husband parked in a perfectly legal but odd spot in front of the supermarket and and much older guy who was walking by yelled, ‘hey sonny – you can’t park there, that’s for spastics’ – which obviously no one would say anymore, but for that generation it was a common term – to the point where charities/organisations for handicapped people were legitimately called that.
You’ve just reminded me of that older term – I note in Wiki that The Spastics Society charity changed its name in 1994 to SCOPE.
Interesting, I did not even know the term spastic was ever used that way.
Maybe he really wasn’t being racist. Nowadays we have to be sooooo careful when talking or writing cause anything can be used against us.
IMO that wasn’t a racist comment, only a historical finding used in an unhappy declaration. Of course a lot of things shall be considered, such as the context it was said, the tone, etc. I’m only analysing an isolated phrase.
I find it ironic that in his explanation of his original poor choice of words he uses the term “Imbecilic”, another term that is not used anymore. Imbecile ranks up there with moron and retard as hurtful outdated descriptions for the mentally handicapped. Poor Mr. Guerlain should just keep his mouth shut. (I will admit to some personal bias as I have a handicapped cousin who is very dear to me.)
I think the translation is to blame for that. Imbécile is a word still used in French. It means something like idiot, berk, fool etc. And is used irrespective of it’s former medical use.
Absolutely! ‘imbécile’ = idiotic, moronic, stupid, foolish
Thanks for confirming, I am not a native speaker, but spent a year in France, but that was a long, long time ago.
Bela, as I recall, that term is very strong in Spanish, i.e., very insulting – is that the same in French?
Not really, no. You might shout ‘Espèce d’imbécile!’ (or ‘Espèce d’idiot!’) at, say, a cyclist who zooms past you when you’re crossing the street. It’s not terribly abusive at all.
I have friend’s whose parents were killed by those invading Nazis My birthday is on the date which has become a sad date for my community. so I try to be sensitive when asked about the date or celebrations. This is why I find it so hard to accept that someone can refer to the invasion of his country exclusively in terms of his personal celebration so blithely.
I also find a pattern in Mr. Guerlain’s statements as not just using “outdated” cliches but a real disconnect between his own highly privileged existence and those of others. (He did not just say “work like a nigresse” but described some late nights in how own companies labs as being “working like a nigresse” which really is blind to how hard other people, (much less actual slaves) work.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am explaining why I find his remarks distasteful and disturbing. That is different than believing that they constitute the sum of his existence or that he should be subject to prosecution.
How challenging to have to be tactful about one’s own birthdate, Dilana! Thanks for the explanation and your nuanced perspective.
I wish they would just leave this old man alone. Yes, the wording was unfortunate (and I am Black – and older – so I know a thing or two about unfortunate descriptions)….but he is from another time and he is OLD. My lord, if you could hear my father – at 90, his edit button is permanently broken. All sorts of things come out of his mouth.
Let it go, France.
Thank you for this comment, you echo my thoughts entirely.
Musette, I think we may have the same dad, except for the small fact that mine died (aged 90) in 2004. There is a similar discussion going on presently on Scents of Self, and I mention there that if everyone who made offensive racist remarks were incarcerated, the prisons would be overflowing with octogenarians and up! (and slightly down, it would seem…). I am not saying it was appropriate behaviour – it was a figure of speech that got out of hand in an unguarded moment – but I do think the stigma associated with the “n” word has escalated in recent times as kaos.geo says at the top of the post, while conversely, the “f” word seems to have lost much of its charge since I was young. And JPG has not adapted to the times, sadly.
My dad is 82 and I don’t think he ever had an edit button. Lol. Every now and then he comes out with one of those golden oldie sayings and I just shake my head. Sometimes you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Those were just figures of speech when he grew up. I find it funny that when I was a kid if someone said something mean to me or called me a nasty name, my mom would use another old expression ” sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me “. Nowadays everyone seems offended by everything. Granted, what he said was not appropriate but is all that drama really necessary over one stupid comment?
LOL! Same with my Dad – may he RIP. I think they broke the mold with that generation!
Exactly – if we are not careful, prisons could become the new care homes, and our jails are full to overflowing as it is!
Sadly, they’d probably get much better care.
There’s a difference between what you feel and what you say in public. Whether Guerlain is racist or not is beside the point. He used a demeaning, racist expression in public. And he said it to get a laugh. It’s just wrong. Also, as a 58 year old woman, I find it repugnant that he said he was from another generation and it was a common expression used at the time. So what! There are words that were used when I was a child that I would never dream of using – they’re wrong. We’ve evolved. And we live in today’s world. I have a smart phone, use a computer, and I might even buy a Guerlain scent that was formulated in the past couple years. People feel what they feel. However, using “I’m old” to explain away using hateful words is no excuse, and frankly adds to the offense.
Huuum! You made me think in another point of view. You’re right. His explanations were worse than the original statement he said. So sad; so ugly!
But I guess some people do adapt to changing times and some people don’t, or can’t. My father certainly comes out with some regrettable remarks sometimes, but I try to ignore them and think about the positive things he has achieved and continues to achieve in his life. Maybe we could try and do the same for Mr Guerlain.
I’m completely with you on that. I always try to shift my focus on the positive and not dwell on the negative. There’s so much more good in life than bad if you look for it.
As a point of clarity, Helg over at Perfume Shrine had an excellent article about this back when it first happened:
She makes an interesting point about language translation.
Thanks for the link – I did read Helg’s post at the time, but it had slipped my mind. That story about Depardieu is quite concerning.
Thanks for the link!
It is ironic that his own embellishment (Je ne sais pas si les nègres ont toujours tellement travaillé, mais enfin…” draws attention to the historical origins and negative connotations of the outdated expression. He ends up illustrating why people find it insulting.
I’m disturbed by the fact that Jean Paul Guerlain is facing six months in prison for a racist remark! What is it, a thought crime? Is the issue that it was said in a broadcast context?
It’s a big leap from finding someone’s words objectionable to condemning those words as criminal. The man didn’t intend to be hurtful.
Yes,that’s the issue: the public use of racist insults, in the case national TV. The French are tough on this, but 6 months is the *maximum sentence*–which JPG is unlikely to receive. John Galliano was found guilty of hate speech last year and was fined about 18 K (Euros).
Couldn’t agree more. I’m baffled that it’s gone this far.
‘travailler comme un nègre’ is NOT a racist expression. As cassieflower says above, it just means ‘to work very hard’ – that’s all.
I am Jewish and I would not defend *anyone* if I thought they had made a racist remark. Whoever decided to prosecute that old man was completely misguided. It’s a waste of everyone’s time.
Forgot to say (but I think most people here know) that French is my mother tongue and I am a professional translator.
I think French is the mother tongue of those conducting the trial as well…
I have been “counseled” at work for calling people honey, sweetheart, etc. Sexual harassment, thank you very much. The complaint from a man young enough to be my son.
I am from the South, 48 years old, and call EVERYONE… male and female, young and old…. by such pet names. ( Generally, I do not call them by the name per se, it’s more like “Thank you, sweetheart” etc.)
I realize that there is no real comparison to this as opposed to using what could be construed as a racial slur, but I bring it up to say that generational and even regional differences are very real. And also to illustrate how insane society has become.
My HR rep was apologetic and couldn’t even keep a straight face, but this is in my HR file, and will follow me around forever, if I use this company as a reference.
Frankly, even if JPG HAD meant it as a vile insult, I think it’s appalling that he faces prison time for using an expression.
This is my own opinion, obviously, but I think we have swung way far in the opposite direction in SPEECH – yet not so much in action. JPG IS actually totally disconnected from the ‘real’ world. He reminds me of the wealthy, elderly white woman who complained to me that the Cosby Show was ridiculous because it didn’t represent REAL Black people. Insulting as it was, it actually made sense to her – in HER world, the only people of ANY color she ever saw were maids and support staff.
I think we need to get over it. Racism exists, sexism exists…overpolicing of words makes me very nervous – maybe it’s just me….? but I’d rather KNOW how folks are thinking, rather than wondering what’s going on behind that PC demeanor.
okay – I’m done
I agree: I often feel the focus on the image being presented is to avoid actually having to do anything about the issue. And I’m fed up with slickness and sophistry!
I couldn’t agree more. I have never suffered from racist remarks, but I have from sexist ones. I find overly polite people creepy, as a matter of fact. But then the Dutch are notoriously rude ( or blunt rather), which I don’t necessarily think is right, but it is what I have been used to from being a small child.
I can’t help feeling sorry for him. He has led such a sheltered life in many ways, and it can’t have been easy for him to watch the changes at Guerlain.
What boggles my mind is that someone whose life work is based on being “with it”, or even ahead of trends (fashion savvy is about being completely in touch with the times, or anticipating the next trends as a an expression of the zeitgeist) can be so behind in thought and speech. Add to that: when you dress and try to look like you’re not old, then blame old age for a misjudgement, it’s a bit rich. I am South African, and I have been impressed by many old (white) folks simply changing their ways and thoughts and language, because they’ve realised the ways of “the good old days” were not right. And they are not fashion designers.
I believe Jean Paul Guerlain’s time came and went a long time ago – he’s no more ‘cutting edge’ than I am. I’m not defending what he said – but he’s just a privileged old man who probably hasn’t directly hurt anyone. But he would do well to get out of the public eye.
My father called one of the residents at his nursing home a ‘bitch’ (because she beat the pants off him at rummy and he was PISSED). When I apologized on his behalf she just chuckled and said ‘he’s just a pissy old fart and a bad card player. and a poor loser’. (she’s 94, btw – 4 yrs older than him)
What I find most disturbing, is that he is being prosecuted for this. Are we now in danger of being prosecuted because we have said something that offends people and hurts their feelings? This shouldn’t even reach a court room – the public has responded with according outrage, he has stained his reputation and made a public statement of apology. End of story, surely?! It worries me that we are turning into a Big Brother state that puts people’s offended feelings above the rule of Law. Where does it end?
When I was a prefect at school I had to administer the charity collection at assembly, and one week the sum of money raised was derisorily small: the chosen cause that week was the Epilepsy Society, and I think some of the younger girls were not aware of what that was. Anyway, I took the bags of coins into the headmistress and said: “it’s rather low this week. When the people at the charity see what we have raised they’ll have a fit.”. I wasn’t making a quip, it was an unconscious word association that just slipped out, and I got into serious trouble for it – in 1977! The need to self-police is even more acute now!
Are you kidding me? You got into trouble for that totally innocent remark? See, that’s where that whole PC-policing thing makes my skin crawl. I get why we should think before we speak but for Pete’s sake! (hope I haven’t offended the Petes of the world
He should not be on trial. It’s such a shame. I love my husband’s country, but really, this is not the way to deal with racism. (France has a real problem of racism, and these laws don’t seem to alleviate it.)