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  • The Guerlain Affair:Odorless French Racism
  • Rokhaya Diallo (bio)

During an October 15 televised interview with Elise Lucet about how he had created the fragrance Samsara, Jean-Paul Guerlain, the well-known perfumer whose family has put its stamp on luxury cosmetics, let slip with the mischievous tone of someone who is about to tell a good joke: "For once, I made myself work like a nigger [un nègre]. I don't know if niggers always worked so hard, but regardless . . ."

After such comments pronounced live on the nightly newscast of France 2, the most-watched French public channel, one might imagine an indignant journalist cutting the interview short, after which the channel—financed by tax dollars, including niggers—would immediately issue a statement strongly condemning such wording and commit itself to organizing a debate establishing the truth about "niggers" work and questioning the spread of racist language on television. Politicians of all stripes would react to the whirlwind of statements issued. And there is no doubt that the Guerlain brand would immediately decide to cease collaboration with the author of this racist discourse.

In reality, none of this actually happened. The journalist did nothing to contradict Guerlain's statement other than lapse into a deafening silence, letting a palpable embarrassment settle over the conversation. At first, the Guerlain brand did not deign to explain itself, leaving the offender to remind the public that he is no longer a shareholder or employee of the brand (omitting the fact that he is still a consultant).

The most vociferous reaction came from a place no one expected: as soon as the words had been uttered, anger and indignation ricocheted across social networks on the Internet. For many, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. The racist language increasingly employed by media elites had become [End Page 135] intolerable. In the French media, racist declarations among elite circles are typical, whether they emanate from recognized journalists, current ministers in the government, or from the President of the Republic! And typically, the authors of these kinds of statements don't have to worry about any repercussions. But this time, it was too much; people decided that Guerlain couldn't just mouth off like that.

Outraged by the silence of her fellow journalists, Audrey Pulvar's acerbic commentary made use of poet Aimé Césaire's famous line: "The Negro, says fuck you." Her rejoinder provided the media jumpstart for what would become the "Guerlain Affair." In less than forty-eight hours, the Facebook group "I don't want to work like a nigger either," spontaneously created by a Guerlain costumer, called on fellow Web users to take their Guerlain products and put them in front of the prestigious boutique on the equally prestigious Avenue des Champs Elysées, known as the "most beautiful in the world." A clarification: that anonymous Guerlain customer and Audrey Pulvar are black.

Given the scope of the polemic, the news channel finally reacted through Elise Lucet, who presented her apology in the name of the channel, after having declared in an interview that she hadn't heard the inflammatory words when they were said in her presence. But France 2's leadership did not directly respond.

Responding to the call issued through various social networking sites, hundreds of people assembled in front of the Guerlain boutique—forcing its closure—to demonstrate that they were fed up with the impunity racist "jokers" benefit from in the public sphere. The demonstration continued eight Saturdays in a row.

Under pressure, and afraid of what would happen to its profit margins if it was deprived of the juicy end of year and holiday buying sprees, the LVMH group, which Guerlain belongs to, finally agreed to meet the demonstrators to start negotiations.

What can we take away from this imbroglio? What does the "Guerlain affair" reveal about antiblack racism in France?

In freely explaining his racist views, Jean-Paul Guerlain, whose last name is a byword for French luxury goods, unveiled a common French practice: timidity and even a failure to react in the face of expressions of racism, unacceptable as they may be.

Over the course of this controversy...


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