France's dispute with Mexico over Florence Cassez moves from diplomatic arena to cultural stage

France said it would use its 'Year of Mexico' cultural event as a forum to press for the release of Florence Cassez, who is serving a 60-year prison sentence in Mexico for kidnapping.

Florence Cassez of France listens as Mexican authorities fill in documentation, after her arrest in Mexico City in this Dec. 9, 2005 file photo. Cassez, is serving a 60-year prison sentence in Mexico for kidnapping.

France’s "Year of Mexico," launched five days ago as a celebration of Mexican arts and culture, so far seems more like the year of clash with Mexico as relations between the two countries grow increasingly strained over the case of a Frenchwoman imprisoned in Mexico.

Yesterday, Mexico pulled out of the French event after France announced that some 350 events, films, and symposia planned for the year would be used to push for the release of Florence Cassez, who is serving a 60-year prison sentence for kidnapping. Ms. Cassez recently lost an appeal in the case that steams from her 2005 arrest for kidnapping. The French population has taken up her cause as a case of Mexican injustice.

When Mexico learned that the "Year of Mexico" would be used to make the case for Cassez's release, it said it wasn't having any part of it. Mexico "will not allow its artists and creators, or its businessmen and other participants in this program, to be exposed," the Mexican foreign ministry said Monday.

The ministry also criticized French President Nicolas Sarkozy. That “a head of state would make a foreign policy decision that affects ties between two nations and governments in consultation with a person condemned by Mexican justice for a particularly serious crime" is unacceptable, it said.

Cassez has maintained her innocence. She claims that she didn't know about the kidnapping victims who were found at a compound belonging to her former boyfriend, Israel Vallarta.

French sympathy with Cassez has grown since her prison sentence was handed down in 2009. The public has seen pitiable photos of young Cassez peering from behind bars and wires in anticipation of a lifetime incarceration in what they view as deplorable jails.

More to the point, much of the discussion here has surrounded the bizarre way her arrest was portrayed in the Mexican media.

On Dec. 8, 2005, Cassez was arrested with Mr. Vallarta on a road 30 miles from Mexico City. On Dec. 9, with TV crews filming, the police staged a “recreation” of a raid on the compound where already-freed hostages were “rescued” and Vallarta and Cassez were “arrested.” The film shows a clearly terrified Cassez protesting that she had no idea what was going on and not a participant. The film was portrayed as an authentic depiction of the raid before it was revealed to be a reenactment.

In France, the case is being seen as the story of a fetching woman who became involved with the wrong guy (Vallarta was the leader of Les Zodiacs, an abduction ring). When Cassez was arrested, she was apparently no longer romantically involved with Vallarta. She had left him left him a year earlier and returned to France. In December 2005, she was back in Mexico and visited Vallarta's compound while traveling. From the French point of view, she's a victim.

When Cassez lost her Feb. 11 appeal, her parents called a press conference to ask Sarkozy to cancel the "Year of Mexico" and then met with him yesterday. Cassez herself did not support canceling the annual cultural event that honors a different country each year. But Sarkozy said this year's celebration would be dedicated to her cause.

Diplomatic tensions between Mexico and France were rising even before Mexico pulled out of the cultural event. French authorities sought to transfer Cassez to a French prison and French Foreign Ministry officials criticized Mexico’s handling of the case as “appalling.” Sarkozy said the issue would be raised at the G-20 next year, when Mexico takes over from France as head of the grouping.

“France is determined to solve the humanitarian problem of Florence Cassez,” Sarkozy said today.

Before Mexico pulled out, acclaimed Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes opposed the cancellation, arguing the case should not get solved by “a confrontation between the cultures of France and Mexico” and vowed to “be present for the events to which I have been invited.”

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