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Scent king in court for throwaway TV lines that caused a stink across France

First it was John Galliano in the dock for racism. Now fellow style icon Jean-Paul Guerlain is on trial

One of the world's most successful parfumiers apologised in court yesterday for making "imbecilic" and "old fashioned" remarks about black people on French television.

Jean-Pierre Guerlain, 75, grandson of the founder of the eponymous French perfume house, declared that he was "not at all a racist," adding that he "profoundly regretted and apologised to the black community" for comments that he made during a television interview 16 months ago.

Mr Guerlain, inventor of 33 perfumes including several iconic brand names, went on trial in Paris for "proffering racial insults", after complaints by anti-racist groups. The controversy was sparked by an interview on French television in October 2010, where he was asked how he came to invent his celebrated Samsara scent in 1989. Mr Guerlain explained that he had made a special effort, including 33 trial recipes, because he had wanted to seduce an English woman.

"For once, I worked like a nigger," he said. "I'm not sure that niggers have always worked so hard as all that but still..." The word that Mr Guerlain used – "nègre"– was once in common usage across French but, like its English language equivalent, it is now regarded as demeaning and unacceptable. His comments led to protests and calls to boycott Guerlain perfumes in France and the United States, embarrassing Bernard Arnault, the head of the LVMH luxury goods empire that counts Guerlain among its brands. LVMH also owns Christian Dior, the fashion house that sacked the fashion designer John Galliano for making anti-Semitic remarks.

Some French anti-racist groups have suggested that Mr Guerlain's comments symbolise a resurgence of racism in France and have made comparisons with Mr Galliano's conviction last year for his remarks. Others say that the Mr Guerlain's comments represent an unthinking "ordinary racism" among older members of the haute bourgeoisie.

The lawyer for SOS Racisme, Patrick Klugman, told the court yesterday that Mr Guerlain's comments amounted to a form of "jovial racism" that were "disturbingly classic" but "exceptionally serious". Mr Guerlain, who appeared in court on crutches, explained that he "came from another generation".

"The first part of what I said is something that I heard throughout my youth when I worked in my grandfather's garden," he said. "It was a current expression at the time."

The second part of his comment - about black people "not working so hard as all that" was, he said, "an imbecility on my part". "I wanted to make the interviewer laugh and I regret it," he said. "I regret it very profoundly and offer all my apologies to the black community for this imbecility."

The court delayed its judgement until 29 March. If found guilty, he could, in theory, face up to six months in prison and fines of up to €22,500 (£19,000).