In October 2010, Jean-Paul Guerlain, heir to the cosmetic empire Guerlain, was interviewed on French television, and asked about his work on a perfume some years before. "For once, I set to work like a Negro. I don’t know if Negroes have always worked like that, but anyway," he replied.
His comments were obviously racist, and in France, they're also illegal. Yesterday, 75-year-old Guerlain was charged in court for ascribing “laziness” to a “group of people by virtue of their origin or race” and was ordered to pay 6,000 euros in fines.
France has far stricter hate speech laws than the United States does, in part because they don't have an equivalent of the First Amendment protections for speech. Insults or defamation related to race, religion, ethnicity, handicap, or sexual orientation – even if in private – are legally punishable.
"You can be fined or penalized for saying something that would be okay here," explained Martin Rogoff, Director of the French Law Program at the University Of Maine Law School.
The big difference, of course, is that France has legislation on the books. "They have a penal law that makes it a finable crime to use racially inflammatory language," said Matthew Galluzzo, a lawyer who works with the French Consulate. "That's just something we don't have in the U.S."
But wait…a big name in the fashion and beauty world, getting fined for making racist comments in France? That sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it?
In 2011, John Galliano, then of the fashion house Dior, made antisemitic comments at a bar in Paris. He was essentially put on probation – and told he'd have to pay fines if he acted up again, and was also asked to pay 16,500 euros to support antiracism groups that were involved in the trial. The point is: the case went to court.
Alright. We get it. If you want to get fined thousands of Euros in France, say something prejudiced in some kind of forum where it's bound to be heard and subsequently offend people. The law will take it from there. Except when it doesn't.
The law seems to be selective in its definitions of racism, in ways that sometimes don't make much sense. In 2009, French Vogue published a spread in which model Lara Stone was shot in blackface, which, well, is about as racist as it gets. The media cried foul, but no legal punishment or even a trial ensued.
So, why do Guerlain and Galliano get fined while Vogue gets to walk free? "I don't know why," Galluzzo said.