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CRIME

Galliano tells court: I remember nothing

Fashion designer John Galliano will learn 11 weeks from today the outcome of his day-long trial on charges of hurling racist and anti-Semitic remarks at patrons in a hip Paris bar.

After seven hours of hearings – at which the 50-year-old couturier blamed his career-wrecking conduct on a crippling addiction to drugs and alcohol – a criminal court in the French capital set September 8 for sentencing.

Speaking publicly for the first time since the furore broke in February, Galliano said he had no recollection of the incidents that cost him his highly coveted job as creative director at the Christian Dior fashion house.

“They are not views that I hold or believe in,” he said after the court viewed an amateur video in which he declared a love for Hitler to shocked patrons at La Perle in the Le Marais, the old Jewish quarter of Paris.

“In the video, I see someone who needs help, who is very vulnerable. It is a shell of John Galliano, pushed to the edge,” said the Gibraltar-born and London-bred designer who repeatedly denied he was anti-Semitic or racist.   

He told the court he suffered from a triple addiction to alcohol, valium and sleeping pills, and that he checked into rehab in Arizona and Switzerland after his downfall at Dior. Today, he added, “I am in day care”.

Widely regarded as one of the finest fashion designers of his generation, Galliano faces a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a fine of €22,500 ($32,000) if convicted of making anti-Semitic insults.

Prosecutor Anne de Fontette asked the court Wednesday to fine Galliano no less than 10,000 euros, but made no mention of prison time, at the conclusion of a long day in a hot, stuffy, wood-panelled criminal court chamber.

“I apologise very much,” said Galliano in a soft voice when asked by presiding judge Anne-Marie Sauteraud if he wanted to apologise to his reputed victims. “I apologise for the sadness this whole affair has caused.”

“I embrace every people, every race, creed, religion, sexuality,” he said, adding that he celebrated diversity through his couture.

Galliano said that he himself had experienced bigotry first hand after he moved to south London in the 1960s with his family at the age of six, enduring bullying at “a typical English school” because of his homosexuality.

He said he began abusing drugs and alcohol in 2007 following the death of Steven Robinson, his closest friend and right-hand man at both Dior and his own John Galliano label.

“After every creative high, I would crash, and alcohol helped me escape,” he said, adding later: “I’m much better now.”

Dressed soberly in a black jacket, matching loose silk trousers, but without his signature hat, Galliano was accompanied by his lawyer Aurelien Hamelle and a burly, bald-headed bodyguard who sat two rows behind him.

An interpreter whispered into his left ear as Sauteraud, with a docket 20 centimetres (eight inches) high at her side, read from a document that quoted Galliano as using such phrases as “fucking ugly Jewish bitch”.

Asked by the prosecutor if she was sure Galliano had used the word “Jewish”, his alleged target, museum curator Geraldine Bloch, replied confidently: “Yes, several times… it was one of the most recurrent words.”

She said Galliano had begun by mocking her “cheap boots”, moved on to insult her figure and finally called her “a dirty Jewish bitch”.

Her companion that evening, receptionist Philippe Virgitti, testified that Galliano made several obscene Jewish references, and that he had also called him a “fucking Asian bastard” as well.

But Marion Bully, 30, an English teacher within earshot of the altercation, said that while she heard Galliano insult Bloch, at no time did she hear Jewish references.

A second witness, a 24-year-old German fashion student, said she too was at the bar on February 24 and confirmed an altercation, but added: “I did not hear any anti-Semitic things.”

Another woman, Fathia Oumeddour, later came forward to say she was the victim of a similar assault in October 2010. Her complaint was integrated into Wednesday’s proceedings.

The video was taken on a third occasion, apparently at La Perle. Galliano – seen in the clip wearing a winter cap – said he had no recollection of the incident, but added that he believed it may have taken place in December 2010.

Bloch is seeking a symbolic one euro in damages, although her lawyer Yves Beddock told the court that Galliano had already been punished in a way: “The sentence has already been handed down – by Dior.”

In the days after the February 24 incident, Galliano lodged a counter-suit against Bloch and Virgitti, alleging defamation.

WILDFIRES

French police track forest fire-starters by air and land

On the ground, two officers from a special mobile brigade of France's paramilitary gendarmerie speed along a forest track.

French police track forest fire-starters by air and land

Above them, a helicopter scans the landscape to warn them of any fires or anyone who might be looking to start one.

These are the members of a newly created police team who have just started patrolling in southwest France to seek out and arrest the fire-starters devastating the region’s forests.

In the last week, no less than 20 fires have broken out in the forest bordering the seaside resort of Soulac-sur-Mer in the La Gironde department of southwest France, says the local gendarmerie.

While some have burned for just a 100 square metres (322 square feet), the largest devoured 30 hectares (74 acres) of forest.

Scorched trees and charred trunks line the paths and cycle paths that criss-cross the woods.

To stop the devastation, local officials have sent in the new unit, the Forest Vigilance Platoon (PVF) made up of 15 reservist gendarmes, a senior police officer and two motorcyclists from the mobile brigade, backed up by the
helicopter.

Spread across three zones, the PVF patrol the forest on motorbikes, all-terrain bicycles or in cars, where possible, on the hunt for fire-starters.

Set up just last week they started patrolling on Thursday.

The idea is that the PVF will free up firefighters who have been stretched thin battling blazes that since Tuesday have burned up 7,400 hectares of pine forests at the southern end of Gironde.

“After the major fires in July, we observed a rise in the number of arson cases,” said Martin Guespereau, deputy prefect for defence and security in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, which covers the Gironde.

“There are around twenty fires of unknown origin a day in Gironde.”

¬†According to France’s National Forests Office (ONF) nine out of 10 fires were started by people — and three out of 10 were started deliberately.

Forest off-limits

“The Forest Vigilance Platoon is a support division, whose aim is to prevent, detect and possible to arrest,” said Captain Christophe Roque, who was given the job of putting the team together.

Red-and-white signs at the edge of the Soulac-sur-Mer forest inform walkers that due to the “very severe” risk of fire, the forest is off-limits to the public until further notice — and has been since August 11.

A few cyclists were nevertheless out on the trails on Saturday, and were quickly intercepted by the gendarmes of the PVF.

“As soon as we come across someone, we get their identity,” said one member of the team, Bruno Kechtoff. “Because if we come across the same person several times, then that becomes suspicious.”

A message comes over the radio: two outbreaks of fire barely 500 metres (yards) apart, near Bazas, south of Bordeaux, the regional capital. A local has reported seeing someone on a moped wearing “yellow-trimmed” trousers”.

The LVF’s helicopter veers off towards Bazas, 130 kilometres away (80 miles) away.

Where they are sent next depends on where the next fires break out, says Constable Jeremy Hernandez. “We have been called here urgently but we can move if other areas are concerned.”

Then they are in their car and driving off, siren wailing, on the look-out for a quad reported in the woods.

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