Better times: Guerlain receives his Legion of Honor award from Sarkozy in 2008.

As France struggles with discontent over the Sarkozy plan to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, another long-standing — but often ignored — problem has reared its ugly Gallic head again: racism. This time it involves a revered figure, Jean-Paul Guerlain, descendant of the founder of the famous perfumery. In a TV interview recalling his hard work on Samsara, a perfume inspired by his wife, he declared, "I started working like a nigger (nègre in French). I don't know if niggers ever worked that hard." The aside went unnoticed by the interviewer — and by much of French society.

In fact, when Audrey Pulvar, one of the most visible black journalists in France, responded forcefully in her blog on France Inter, she was the first public figure to reprimand Guerlain for his gaffe. In France, she declared, someone can say anything racist without any major intellectual or political figure responding. FInally, Finance Minister Christine Lagarde labeled Guerlain’s remarks "pathetic." In response to his e-mail apology, she said, "I just hope that this is senile and crude and that the apology is really sincere and gracious."

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As usually happens with these events in France, the incident set off a flurry of articles about casual racism in France, from a white father and his mixed-race daughter being hassled by police in the subway to a white woman grabbing and shaking a young black girl on line at the Louvre and declaring, "They can't do math but they can memorize your PIN number." It's a long way from the ideals of the French Revolution. Some activists have called for a demonstration Saturday at the headquarters of LVMH, which owns the brand, and a boycott of Guerlain products. No wonder folks are in the streets protesting.