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Free Roman Polanski? Case shows US-France cultural divide

French elites lobby to "Free Polanski." American and French students pick sides in a French debate over the rape case.

By Staff writer / September 29, 2009

PARIS – In Europe, the detention of director Roman Polanski in a Swiss jail on a 31-year-old US warrant is unfolding as a transatlantic cultural and legal clash.

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In France, and in influential circles across Europe, the main position might be described as “Free Polanski!” But among ordinary Europeans, there’s an emerging outrage over what is seen as the elite classes defense of a man who fled justice.

The detention and possible extradition of the director of “Chinatown” and “The Pianist” – for fleeing the US in 1978 after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting a 13-year old – has stoked animosities here about a perceived American petit bourgeoisie mentality. It also plays into a French cultural sensibility about “the artist” as a creature deserving special status and refuge.

Indeed, it is a case of crime and non-punishment worthy of a film script of aesthetic if not moral tension: An aged, Oscar-winning world celebrity who has lived three decades as a fugitive – and his now-middle age victim forgives him – is backed by the soft power of Hollywood. On the other side, California prosecutors, applying the letter of the law and doggedly chasing a man who admitted to "unlawful sex with a minor," have a case that is now laced with suspicion of legal tampering and judicial impropriety.

Polanski holds French and Polish passports. France and the US have an extradition treaty. But French citizens, like Israelis, are not extradited except under extraordinary circumstances, according to a US Embassy sources – enabling him to live in France.

Polanski’s Saturday arrest in Zurich, Switzerland, has brought a Monday roar of European official outrage and incomprehension. French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner described Polanski’s detention, en route to receive a film award, as “sinister.” Cultural minister Frederic Mitterrand said, “Just as there is an America that is generous and that we like, so there is an America that is frightening, and that is the America that has just revealed its face.”

The deputy editor of the French daily L’Express opined that US and Swiss authorities cut a deal for leniency on reporting Swiss bank shelters. Dominique Paille, spokesman for French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, said: “The US is always portrayed as a great democracy and a role model.... Today we discover there is no limit on crimes and misdemeanors in that country.... Remission for good behavior does not exist.”

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