France Can Forgive Some Celebrities, But Not John Galliano

Having already lost his position as creative director of his own fashion line and the Christian Dior label, John Galliano's life just got worse. The former fashion designer was convicted in a Paris court today for racist and anti-Semitic remarks made at a bar in Paris earlier this year. He wasn't sentenced to any jail time, but he was issued a suspended fine of 6,000 euros ($8,421), which means he won't have to pay the fine but it will go on his criminal record in France.

According to reports (and a video), Galliano hurled some 30 anti-Semitic and racist insults at a couple at the La Perle bar back in February. And since French law protects citizens against hate speech based on race, ethnicity, religion and sex, among other things, what Galliano said and did wasn't just wrong, it was also illegal.

During his trial in June, Galliano testified that he has addictions to alcohol, Valium and sleeping drugs, which doesn't excuse his behavior nor fully explain it. And even though the prosecutor said he didn't believe the designer was a "theoretician" of anti-Semitism, Galliano will have a hard time convincing the fashion world and the general public that he doesn't subscribe to racist and anti-Semitic beliefs.

Erik Bleich makes an interesting argument on Huffington Post today that we can learn a thing or two from France and other European countries that have adopted similar hate speech laws. He points out that while these countries have made hate speech illegal in the past few decades, the United States has only solidified its commitment to protect hate speech under the guise of freedom of speech.

Maybe similar laws in the United States would better serve those who are victims of hate speech. Take for instance, the Michael Richards incident. The victim of the former Seinfeld actor's racist tirade at a comedy club would probably feel justice had been served had Richards received some sort of legal condemnation, even though Michael Richards will never enjoy the fame he once had. His career is pretty much over, and there's not much he can do to repair his reputation.

Whether it's Richards or Mel Gibson, we are quick to convict celebrities, but it's interesting that at times our European counterparts can be forgiving and tolerant when we refuse to be. Perhaps in Europe it depends on who the celebrity is.

We all know the story of director Roman Polanski and the 1977 sexual assault case against him. When he was arrested in 2009, Americans cheered the capture of a fugitive and child rapist, but Europeans were vocal in their objections to the arrest. Many said Polanski shouldn't be forced to serve time for a crime he committed so long ago, but perhaps France was also affording him some leniency because of his celebrity.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that he wanted a "rapid resolution to the situation which would allow Roman Polanski to rejoin his family as quickly as possible." It seemed that much of France rallied around the director that most Americans deem a criminal who never paid for his crimes. Ted Stanger, a former Newsweek writer and resident of France, told Time Magazine at the time, "The French view Polanski as an artist and celebrity and feel he deserves a different kind of treatment than ordinary people, which just isn't an option in the U.S."

Of course, people in the United States are just as outraged as their European counterparts when it comes to John Galliano. Galliano can claim he was on a drink-and-drug-fueled binge, but the court of international public opinion, as well as a French court, have found him guilty. The chances that his country will eventually embrace Galliano as they have done with Polanski seem slight.

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