Guerlain perfume heir accused of racism in trial

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By INGRID ROUSSEAU, Associated Press

PARIS (AP) — An heir to the Guerlain perfume empire went on trial Thursday in Paris on charges he made racist insults on national television.

Jean-Paul Guerlain faces up to six months in prison and a maximum fine of euro22,500 ($29,900) if convicted.

Prosecutor Alexandre Aubert denounced what he called the use of a "degrading stereotype." The verdict was set for March 29.

Guerlain is accused of using a French word for black people in a derogatory way as he described how hard he worked to create one of the company's most famed perfumes in a 2010 interview on France 2 television.

The elegant 75-year-old 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.

Representatives of anti-racism groups who had filed a legal complaint filled the courtroom at the Justice Palace in central Paris.

Guerlain's "sickening" remark was "particularly regrettable for a man who spent his life in perfumes," said Hamza Ekostiti, a local official from France's northern Nord region and civil party in the case.

Patrick Klugman, a lawyer for the SOS Racism association, said the heir to the Guerlain dynasty abused the national platform he was given.

"We are pursuing someone whose name is famous worldwide, who was given a stage to promote himself and express himself — and many could envy that — during a televised news bulletin. So I think we should be particularly attentive to how he used this platform, what he said," Klugman said.

Guerlain's lawyer Basile Ader told BFM television that Guerlain "never wanted to offend anyone ... he is not a racist."

The lawyer sought to explain the "unfortunate phrase" by saying Guerlain is a man of "a certain generation."

The remarks caused a furor among anti-racism groups, prompting a protest in front of the boutique on the famed Champs-Elysees Avenue, and the perfumerie distanced itself from Guerlain, who had retired at 65 but remained a consultant.

His lawyer, Stephane Lataste, pleading with the court, said his client has been sufficiently punished.

"His career instantly ended on that day," Lataste said. With Internet, his name has been "eternally ... dragged through the mud."

Guerlain is the great-great-grandson of the founder of the Guerlain cosmetics company, now owned by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

LVMH was embarrassed last year when designer John Galliano — who worked for LVMH subsidiary Christian Dior — was convicted of anti-Semitic comments.

(This version CORRECTS Adds quotes, details. Corrects age to 75. Adds byline. This story is part of AP's general news and financial services.)

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