Last week I met some older French people, in their seventies, at a dinner party. They were regaling us all with stories of how easy it was to park in Paris when they were young-- one or two cars a block at the Louvre or Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and of how you used to be able to ride in a boat across the lake underneath the Opéra Garnier (yes, there is one but it is not open to outsiders any more, apparently).
The conversation moved on to the recent trial of Jean-Paul Guerlain, heir to the founder of Guerlain and celebrated "nose," for racist remarks, which are a crime in France. Guerlain, being interviewed on television about the creation of the perfume Samsara, had said,
For once, I began to work like a nègre. I don't know if the nègres always worked that hard, but anyway...
The older people were indignant because, they said, travailler comme un nègre was a common expression, at least in their generation.*
"And nègre does not mean 'nigger,' not at all," one of them said. "It is not disrespectful. When we were young we were told to use it instead of noir."
"Everyone said that phrase, work like a nègre. That was how you said 'work hard'," said another. "It never crossed our minds that it was racist. I'm sure Guerlain just said it without thinking. It means ghostwriter, too.* People still use nègre for that. Is that going to be illegal too?"
"Certainly, Guerlain should have known better than to say it at all, much less on television, even if he isn't a racist," said a third older man, our host. "It is predictable that it sounds racist to many people." In fact it led to furious demonstrations and boycotts, and Guerlain risks six months in prison and €22,500 in fines.
"The language is changing," sighed an older lady. "It's so hard for people of our generation to know what to say and what not to say these days. He's an old man."
"Younger than you!" said her husband.
"Justement!" she retorted. "What good does it do to put him on trial? We weren't raised like young people today, or like you Americans, surrounded by people of every race," she explained to me. Everyone in France is aware that Americans are more sensitive ("hypersensible" is often the word used) to this kind of thing. "We knew only other Catholic, white French people like us."
"Except for a few Protestants and the Jews," said the first man. "In the south of France, when I was young, the Nazis were persecuting the Jews. My parents raised me to respect the Jews and we were not allowed to use the word juif in case a Nazi might hear. So the grownups all called the Jews Bretons. Because the Bretons are so Catholic, you know, and the Jews are pas très catholique."
* This is true. In the past I have often heard older French people use this phrase, although this case got so much publicity I think it will finally die out now.
** Amazingly, this is also true. To this day, nègre littéraire is the French way to say "ghostwriter."