Perfumier’s use of n-word creates a stink in Paris
Jean-Paul Guerlain says he didn’t mean to offend – but the Rev Al Sharpton is on his way to France
One hundred demonstrators braved the Paris cold on Saturday to protest outside the Guerlain boutique on the Champs-Elysees. It wasn't quite the show of force the organisers wanted, but those that did turn up made known their anger at remarks made last week by Jean-Paul Guerlain, France's best-known perfumier.
Brandishing banners emblazoned with slogans such as 'Boycott Guerlain' and 'No to racism', the demonstrators also emptied bottles of his world famous perfume on to the pavement.
The row erupted when the 73-year-old Guerlain was invited on to France 2, one of the country's main television stations, to discuss his illustrious career.
Asked by the presenter to describe the inspiration behind his Samsara perfume, Guerlain attributed it to a woman he was pursuing: "One day I said to her: 'What would seduce you if one was to make a perfume for you?' and she told me, 'I love jasmine, rose and sandalwood'.
"At once, I set to work like a nigger. I don't know if niggers have always worked like that, but anyway."
In Guerlain's youth the expression "to work like a nigger" was socially acceptable in France - but no longer.
However, it wasn't just the use of the n-word that infuriated anti-racist groups - it was also Guerlain's apparent insinuation that black people are incapable of working hard. The most popular banner on display on the Champs-Elysees on Saturday was one (above) that read: "I no longer want to work like a nigger either."
Guerlain, who left the company his forefathers founded 174 years ago in 2002 and is now a consultant 'nose', subsequently apologised for his "shocking words", adding: "[They] do not reflect in any way my profound thoughts but are due to an inopportune misspeaking which I vividly regret."
Similar expressions of contrition have come from France 2 and from LVMH, the parent company of Guerlain perfume, which said in a press statement: "We vigorously condemn all forms of racism".
In the eyes of the French media and the majority of the population, the apologies signalled the end of the furore - particularly as the country is in the grip of strikes over state pension reform - but pressure groups are less willing to forgive and forget.
Movement Against Racism and for Friendship (MRAP) says it plans to take legal action against Guerlain and added: "Such statements reveal the state of 'ordinary racism' that still irrigates a French society that refuses to illuminate its present with the lessons of history."
Meanwhile the Representative Council of Black Associations (CRAN) has invited the Rev Al Sharpton, one of America's most prominent civil rights campaigners, to address an anti-racist rally in Paris next month.
Sharpton declared his outrage at Guerlain's comments on the website of his National Action Network, saying: "The fact that Jean-Paul Guerlain felt comfortable enough to use the n-word in public, coupled with a recent United Nations report showing that racism is on the rise in France, illustrates the depth of racism not only in France but throughout Europe and around the world."
CRAN also hopes to coordinate a worldwide boycott of Guerlain's perfume, though judging by yesterday's low-key demonstration, for many people the fragrance of his scent masks the stink of his words.
For LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) the scandal is but a minor inconvenience in a week when it consolidated its position as the world's leading luxury retailer. On Saturday the company confirmed it had bought a 14.2 per cent stake in the French luxury goods brand Hermes, though LVMH denied it wanted to take over the firm. ·
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