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France rallies to Polanski's defence while Hollywood watches

File photo of film director Roman Polanski attending a news conference to present his musical 'Tanz der Vampire' ('Dance of the Vampires') in Berlin October 11, 2006. Polanski was arrested on September 26, 2009 at the request of the United States on trying to enter Switzerland to receive a prize.


A well-known filmmaker says it smacks of the witch hunts against the entertainment industry during the 1950s McCarthy era. One minister says it shows a frightening side of the American character, and another calls it a sinister exercise of international law.

In the hothouse world of French culture and politics, filmmaker Roman Polanski has been elevated to the status of celebrity victim. He is portrayed not as a man persecuted for his art so much as a man whose art should have shielded him from arrest.

"A man whose talent is recognized around the world, recognized especially in the country that arrested him, that's not nice," Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Monday. "This story, frankly, is a little sinister."

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Swiss police, acting on an American arrest warrant, jailed Mr. Polanski on Saturday, 32 years after he admitted having unlawful sex with a drugged 13-year-old girl and fled the United States to avoid sentencing.

Prosecutors in Los Angeles, where the attack occurred, have 40 days to submit a formal request to have the 76-year-old director extradited. His lawyers said he would fight extradition.

Mr. Polanski's French nationality - he also has Polish citizenship - might explain some of the indignation in France over his arrest.

But the reaction, at least among the social and political elite, also revealed a long-standing attitude that other countries' justice systems are not fair.

"We're always told that the United States is a great and exemplary democracy," said Dominique Paillé, a spokesman for President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing party. "And now we discover there's no statute of limitation for crimes and misdemeanours."

Frédéric Mitterrand, the Minister of Culture, went further. He called the rape case "an old story" and said he was stupefied that Mr. Polanski would still be pursued.

"There is an America that we love," he said. "There is also a certain America that scares us."

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The reaction from one American community - Hollywood - was muted. Although Mr. Polanski has worked closely with a number of big-name actors there, few went on the record about his plight, and the Directors Guild of America remained silent.

Jeff Berg, Polanski's Los Angeles-based film agent and chief executive of International Creative Management, one of Hollywood's biggest talent agencies, told Reuters that the first priority was to contest the extradition process.

But he said there was "global support from the film community" for Polanski.

"There has been a worldwide outcry from France, Switzerland and Poland and from a vast number of artists in the United States," Berg said.

Producer Harvey Weinstein said he would try to mobilize the movie business to support the petition drive so that Mr. Polanski would not be forced to return to court. Mr. Weinstein reportedly owns the international rights to an HBO documentary that was broadcast last year and contends that Mr. Polanski did not get a fair trial in 1978.

In the mid-1980s, President François Mitterrand, the present Culture Minister's uncle, enraged Italy by saying he did not trust its courts, and then offering political asylum to dozens of members of the far-left terrorist group, the Red Brigades, who were convicted in absentia.

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Only last year, Mr. Sarkozy refused an Italian request to extradite Marina Petrella, one of the Red Brigades members who had been condemned to life in prison for complicity in the killing of a police officer. "France considers humanity to be its exclusive brand," complained an Italian Justice Ministry official at the time.

Dozens of French actors, entertainers and filmmakers, as well as the state-financed Cinémathèque Française, have signed a petition calling for Mr. Polanski's release, saying he was a victim of police entrapment.

Some of the titans of French cinema also attacked Swiss authorities.

"The Swiss are really something," French director Bernard Tavernier said in an interview in the newspaper, Le Monde. "This takes us back to World War II, when they were hardly the model of good behaviour, and to the time of McCarthyism, when celebrities were attacked."

International film festivals, like the one in Zurich, should remain settings where filmmakers can present their works "in total security, even when certain countries want to block them," the petition said.

The indignation of the French film world and ministers has not translated into any public outcry. Instead, the comments posted on the websites of French newspapers and magazines show a very different reaction.

"He's famous, rich and has a lot of friends, so his child molesting is deducted from his art?" wrote one reader. "Let the people in his world glorify him, but not me."

Still, French news reports on the affair have suggested that the arrest had little to do with bringing Mr. Polanski to justice.

The Washington-based correspondent for France 2, the public television channel, said the Swiss authorities may have wanted to score points with the United States because they were under U.S. pressure to reform their secret banking system.

The judge handling the Polanski case in Los Angeles, he added, may have wanted publicity. "It's always nice for a judge to chalk up a Hollywood star on his record," he said.

Mr. Polanski was charged in 1977 with drugging a 13-year-old girl with champagne and Quaaludes, then raping her in a bedroom in the Los Angeles home of actor Jack Nicholson.

He pleaded guilty to having unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, but left the country before his sentencing.

In a 1979 interview with French television, a year after he fled to Europe, he said he thought the judge in the case was persecuting him and, "I didn't think justice could be done."

His victim, now 45, has said she would like to see the case closed. Six years ago, she wrote in the Los Angeles Times that she harboured neither hard feelings nor sympathy for Mr. Polanski.

He won an Oscar in 2003 for best director for the film The Pianist, which also won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

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