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.

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.

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.”

“France sanctifies writers and artists,” argues Paris intellectual Karim Emile Bitar.“From statements by French government officials and from Polanski’s numerous supporters in the cultural industry, there is an obvious underlying assumption: that talent and artistic genius should allow someone to get a free pass and be above the law,” says Bitar.

French vs. American students
On Monday, at an international business school in Normandy, American and French students debated the case. The French entirely took Polanski’s side, and the Americans, with one exception, countered.

French students described the case as “Polanski Gate,” a “blatant case of puritanism,” and that “time has passed,” according to a professor who witnessed the debate.

American students said the French did not want to hear that Polanski drugged and had sex with a 13-year old girl when he was 44, cared little for the girl’s suffering, and were exhibiting “Pavlovian anti-Americanism.”

Unofficial French opinions
Still, by Tuesday that French official position was taking some legal and cultural fire – aimed mainly at French elites. The website Le Point reported that 97 percent of comments opposed the French official position. Readers criticized the “hordes from Boulevard St. Germain,” a popular celebrity-intellectual area, and “the politico-bobo-cultural elite” who backed Polanski “with pompous sentences that defy common sense and the rule of law.”

Other websites report similar comments, swinging well against Polanski.

Former student leader and current Green party member of parliament Daniel Cohn-Bendit criticized the authorities, telling French radio: “This is a judicial problem and I think that a culture minister, even if his name is Mitterrand, should say: ‘I need to know the details of the case’… This is the toughest story, because there was a rape on a 13-year-old girl. She said herself: ‘I didn’t file a complaint’ and also said ‘I got a lot of money.’”

The girl, now a married mother of three in Hawaii, has said that years ago she sued Polanski and settled the case out of court for an undisclosed amount of money. In January, she asked a California judge to dismiss the criminal case, and has said several times that she wishes the media coverage would stop.

Former legal columnist at Le Monde, Luc Rosenzweig, writes: “The mobilization in Polanski’s favor is impressive: both states of which he is a citizen, Poland and France, are expressing all the more outrage since they have no chance of stopping the judicial process. Hollywood, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Prenzlauer Berg and other urban sanctuaries of culture and good taste are on the verge of insurrection and claim the immediate release of the author of the Pianist."

However, he adds: “From a strictly judicial point of view, Roman Polanski’s arrest at the Zurich airport is perfectly in accordance with the judicial conventions between Bern and Washington. A rape of a minor – of which Roman Polanski stands accused – does not have a statute of limitation in Swiss or American law.”

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