PARIS -- Disability groups in France are calling for a boycott of some Babybel cheese following accusations that a promotional summer toy insults the mentally ill.
Toy inkpads featuring the term "mentally ill holidays," were included as free gifts throughout July in bags of Mini Babybel, the round cheese with the iconic red wax coating.
The expression: "des vacances de malade mental," Babybel says, was intended as a fun wordplay on a common French term to mean "extraordinary."
But Babybel later admitted the slogan was not properly thought out.
"It was a short marketing campaign and as a result there was an error in validating the slogan. We admit it was very clumsy," Babybel Director General Etienne Lecomte said Thursday.
On Monday, France's leading association for the mentally handicapped, Unapei, called for a nationwide boycott of the cheese packs. It said the slogan sends "discriminatory values" to children.
The boycott initially covered all cheese products made by the Bel Group, the cheese conglomerate that also produces "The Laughing Cow" cheese.
But Babybell apologized Wednesday, prompting disability groups to limit their boycott only to the packs containing the toys with the toy inkpads.
Babybel said it has stopped their production and is trying to take the remaining packets off shelves.
"Yes, Babybel has apologized, and it's sincere. But the damage might already have been done," said Unapei President Christel Prado.
"Kids go back to school soon, and they'll get asked about their holidays. Kids pick up things easily. Our fear is that they'll repeat: 'We had mentally ill holidays.'"
Ludovic Gregoire, whose six-year-old son suffers from a form of autism, was one of many who wrote messages on Babybel's Facebook wall protesting the slogan.
"It's just hurtful, when I read it. They call it humor. But if there was more education, negative campaigns like this wouldn't happen. In France, we are so behind other countries," Gregoire said. "'Malade mentale' is a common expression, but French people need to know how it actually feels. It's offensive."
Babybel management has agreed to talk about ways to fight discrimination in a meeting with disability groups scheduled for September.
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