Mitterrand: A Friend to Polanski — and Young Boys?

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Frédéric Mitterrand, France's Culture Minister and nephew of the late President François Mitterrand, has come under attack

Score it as the first serious collateral damage stemming from the ongoing detention of film director Roman Polanski. Just two weeks after his impassioned protest of Polanski's Sept. 26 arrest, French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand finds himself under attack for his description of sex during trips to Thailand, which critics called sex tourism. Mitterrand, the nephew of late socialist President François Mitterrand, wrote about sex trips in a 2005 novel, detailing paying "boys" for sex. At the time the book was printed, the publisher's official description of La Mauvaise Vie (The Bad Life) unabashedly said the main character "greatly resembles" Mitterrand. Now detractors are using those admissions to call for his resignation.

The tempest broke on Thursday, after video clips of a television debate broadcast three days earlier were posted on the Internet. In the clips, far-right politician Marine Le Pen reads truncated extracts from Mitterrand's novel, including passages in which Mitterrand describes visits to Thai clubs and brothels to procure sex from prostitutes he at times calls "boys" and "young boys." "The profusion of young, very attractive and immediately available boys put me in a state of desire that I no longer needed to restrain or hide," Mitterrand writes.

In the broadcast, Le Pen — favored to succeed her father Jean-Marie Le Pen as leader of the far-right National Front party — voices her outrage at Mitterrand's accounts, and demands he resign from the culture portfolio. Le Pen has been critical of public figures in France who rushed to defend Polanski following his arrest in Switzerland on U.S. arrest warrants for his 1997 guilty plea to criminal charges of having sex with a minor in 1977.

But it's not just the far right calling for Mitterrand's head. Socialist Party spokesman Benoît Hamon echoed Le Pen's criticism of the Culture Minister. Hamon said he was "violently shocked that a man could justify sexual tourism under the cover of literature." He also lamented that even as France and Thailand work together to halt Western exploitation of Asian sex workers, "here comes a government minister to explain how he himself is a consumer of it." Several other Socialist Party officials expressed concerns and demanded Mitterrand explain himself or resign.

Conservatives from the ruling center-right Union for a Popular Majority backed Mitterrand. On Thursday evening, a close aide to Nicolas Sarkozy said the French President backed his Culture Minister and described the controversy around him as "pathetic." A few of Mitterrand's backers noted that while disturbing in parts, La Mauvaise Vie has been hailed by critics both for its literary boldness and its provocative examination of homosexuality. Mitterrand, who was tapped for the Culture Ministry job by Sarkozy in June, has long been open about his sexuality. His defenders note that the current hubbub over the book was notably absent when it came out four years ago. "I don't see why we dredge up such a pathetic polemic after such a long time," Sarkozy adviser Henri Guaino told French television. "Is he on trial? Has he committed a crime?"

His detractors point out that sleeping with minors is indeed a crime — and that if, as Mitterrand's book suggests, that is what he did, he should step down. But Mitterrand has always maintained his novel was intended as a kind of full disclosure of things he'd seen and experienced. While the portion of the book dealing with prostitution might worry some readers — "I got into the habit of paying for boys," he writes — Mitterrand argues that his use of the word boy referred to younger men rather than minors. Many older gay men use the expression in that way, he says. "If the National Front drags me through the mud, it's an honor," Mitterrand said. "But if a leftist legislator is dragging me through the mud, he should be ashamed."

On French television on Thursday night, Mitterrand condemned pedophilia and sex tourism, and said that the men he paid for sex were his own age. He accused his critics of failing to distinguish between homosexuality and pedophilia.

Despite the usual refusal of the left to deal with Le Pen, overlapping motives are driving the common offensive by traditional political enemies. "It's above all the first direct political consequence of the Polanski case, in which Frédéric Mitterrand became iconic of the élites defending [Polanski] by immediately thrusting himself to the heart of the controversy," says political commentator Alain Duhamel. "Some resent him as the living legacy of Mitterrand. The left is still furious at him for agreeing to serve under Sarkozy. Still others want to make him pay for his sophisticated and cultured persona, and colorful private life that he's intentionally used to provoke people with over the years." Mitterrand may yet save his job now that he has denied sex with minors and condemned the sexual tourism he has admitted to. However, serious questions will remain about his judgment.