PARIS - Not everyone in France likes the choice Stephane Zerbib has made. He has already received many chastising phone calls and threats.
Anyone else might have reconsidered his decision, but Zerbib, John Galliano's Jewish lawyer, can't find anything wrong with the situation.
"Some people call me anonymously, swear at me," he says. "There are always those people who make a fuss but it's very easy to judge without knowing the case."
Your client is accused of making rather harsh anti-Semitic comments. What is your explanation for this?
"I have no explanation. It could happen to any one of us. Anyone can go to a bar, drink a little and get into a fight with someone."
So alcohol is to blame?
"It’s alcohol mixed with medications. You're very vulnerable when you're in this state. People who don’t know the case can afford to say things and they all have opinions. It's easy to talk, criticize, be appalled. But these people don't know what really happened."
Galliano, Christian Dior's chief designer and one of fashion's brightest stars, was arrested two weeks ago in Paris after a couple who sat next to him in a bar claimed he verbally abused them with a line of anti-Semitic slurs , as well as remarks such as "filthy whore" and "F*** Asian bastard, I'll kill you."
According to testimonies, Galliano was later found to be intoxicated and was released home with a police escort.
After Dior announced it was suspending the designer, another woman came forward accusing Galliano of making similar anti-Semitic slurs. Shortly thereafter came the clip that changed everything: British daily The Sun uploaded a video on its website showing Galliano declaring he loves Hitler and telling one woman in a Paris bar "people like you would be dead today. Your mothers, your forefathers, would be ... gassed and ... dead.
The disgraced designer has already issued an apology but denied the claims made against him. He said "anti-Semitism and racism have no part in our society. I unreservedly apologize for my behavior in causing any offense."
But he also claimed the couple mocked him and that he was almost assaulted with a chair. A French court is slated to rule on the incident. Meanwhile, the star's fortunes changed overnight from fashion star to the target of ridicule.
'People criticize without knowing the case'
'Galliano is polite, courteous'
This is where Zerbib, 39, comes into the picture. The Jewish lawyer, who previously represented the Shalit family in France, has been serving as Galliano's spokesman for the past few of weeks. Despite his reluctance to address the incidents involving his client, he still maintains: "Galliano is not a racist or an anti-Semite."
Cynics would say he hired you specifically because you are Jewish.
"If it amuses them let them say it. But I have been John Galliano's lawyer for the past seven years. It has nothing to do with the fact that I have a Jewish name."
Did you sense his alleged prejudices over the years?
Were you surprised by the recent publications?
"Very. I'm not the only one – everyone was surprised. I heard about it that same Thursday, but there was no talk of anti-Semitism at the time. The cops weren't handling it as a case of anti-Semitism."
So what were they investigating?
"An argument between people, like people fight in a bar."
Strange, there have been anti-Semitic quotes in the press.
"Yes, that's the complaint the woman filed."
And you still believe he never made such comments.
In your experience, what kind of a person is he?
"He's polite, courteous, very human. His collections have always been about tolerance, openness, love and mutual respect. He even did a show inspired by the homeless to remind us of the creativity of those struggling to make it with little financial means."
Out of public eye
Galliano now faces trial for public slander which may see him sent to jail for a maximum six months and paying a fine of 22,500 euros.
Suzi Menkes, the International Herald Tribune's fashion editor has already reported that the designer is most likely headed to a rehab facility to treat his addictions at the urging of such friends as Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss.
Zerbib, however refuses to disclose his client's exact whereabouts or address any rumors regarding his drug habit. "I won't answer this," he says. "My job becomes very hard without the ability to speak on behalf of my client, but the fact that we don't respond is for his own good."
Zerbib stressed the importance of "public sentencing" and said "we all know what kind of ruin street pressure can lead to.'
Galliano arrives at a Paris police station (Photo: AP)
Asked whether he has seen the Sun's video he says "of course, but it's not part of the trial."
How did it make you feel? It's quite an appalling video.
"Of course it's appalling. But then you realize it's not in the trial for a reason. Let's just say that today this video is worth nothing."
Zerbib then gently suggests that it may have been staged but refuses to say more on the matter.
Unsurprisingly, the Jewish lawyer has been subjected to extensive criticism for defending "the new Mel Gibson".
"There are always those who preach, who say 'how can a Jew defend anyone accused of such slurs," he says. "My job as a lawyer is to guarantee that a person gets a fair trial and that his rights will be protected. I am wary of pre-judgment, that's not my job."
How do you handle the criticism?
"I don't care about it. Criticizing is easy."
So you don’t feel like the devil's advocate then?
"This is hardly the devil. I never would have taken the case had I thought that. "
And you never reconsidered taking the case?
"No. First of all it has nothing to do with the fact I'm Jewish or not. In this profession we take an oath to provide any person with the possibility of defense, regardless of their social background, nationality, religion or skin color. Just like doctors. Moreover, he is not guilty to the best of my knowledge, he hasn't been convicted so that question is not relevant. But the media has always been quicker than the legal system, that is the problem today."
What did your family make of the whole thing? What did your mother think, for instance?
"They all talk to me about it. She said she was very proud her son is doing his job and respects his oath."
Working for the Shalits
The Galliano affair is not the first media saga Zerbib has been involved in. In 2000, he was involved in the case of the 13 Jews who were arrested in Iran over suspicions they spied for Israel, and in 2007 he worked together with another lawyer to free Bulgarian nurses from a Libyan prison after claims they infected children with HIV.
In 2008, he was part of efforts to release captive soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity – a job he says he did voluntarily.
"The task was to involve the French authorities in the case, and that was achieved," he says. "Until we came along, no one knew Shalit in France and we stepped in to remind the French public that Gilad was a French citizen with the same rights as other French hostages. As I recall we managed to collect the signatures of 250 parliament members who signed a petition calling the government to take action. That was our job and then it was left up to the politicians."
How was your meeting with the Shalit family?
"Noam will always have our support and affection. He has a lot of personal strength, he's a person who is fighting to find his son. That's more than admirable. We can only admire his energy and sacrifice."
Are you optimistic?
"One should always hope. Sadly no one knows what became of him, but I think that had he died we would have known about it. This battle must be fought further. The family must continue to fight, there is no other solution."
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