French parfumier Jean-Paul Guerlain in racism trial

Jean-Paul Guerlain
Image caption The charges against Jean-Paul Guerlain stem from comments in a 2010 television interview

The French parfumier Jean-Paul Guerlain has gone on trial on racism charges after he caused widespread offence during a televised interview.

For decades Guerlain was the "nose" behind the world-famous brand.

Asked how he created the Samsara scent, Guerlain replied using a racial slur, the French term "negre", and implied that black people were lazy.

Anti-racism groups said the remark highlighted deep prejudice in French society.

The 75-year-old heir to one of the world's oldest perfume houses appeared in court on Thursday to face charges of making "racist insults" during the interview on French public television in October 2010.

He told the court he was not a racist and said his comments were a stupid joke, news agency AFP reported.

He faces up to six months in prison and a fine of 22,500 euros ($30,000) if found guilty.

At the time, his comments were quickly denounced, with France's Movement Against Racism and for Friendship (MRAP) saying the remarks revealed "the state of ordinary racism that still permeates French society".

Family business

Guerlain apologised but protests erupted outside the company's boutique on the Champs Elysees in Paris and there were calls for a boycott of Guerlain and its owner, the luxury brand giant Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH).

"I offer my apologies to all those who might have been hurt by my shocking words," Guerlain said in a statement after the interview. He said the comments "in no way reflect my true thinking, but were a slip of the tongue".

The Guerlain company also distanced itself from the remarks, saying his words were "unacceptable". It also noted that Guerlain had not been a shareholder in the company since 1996 or part of its staff since 2002.

Guerlain took over the family perfume house from his grandfather, Jacques, in 1959. By then he could recognise 3,000 subtly different smells.

The business was run by the Guerlain family for five generations and created more than 300 fragrances since doctor and chemist Pierre Francois Pascal Guerlain opened his first perfume boutique in Paris 183 years ago.

LVMH purchased the company in 1994 and Guerlain remained as master perfumer until he retired in 2002.

During his time at the company he was hailed as one of the great perfume "noses" of the 20th Century, and created famous scents including Samsara, Nahema and Jardins de Bagatelle.

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