Polanski's Arrest: Why the French Are Outraged

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Pascal Le Segretain / Getty

Roman Polanski, 2009

Although the cultural divide between Europe and the U.S. has narrowed over the years, the legal fate of director Roman Polanski shows there are still major differences. Polanski's arrest in Switzerland on Sept. 26 was greeted with satisfaction in the U.S., where authorities hope he will face sentencing for having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977. Europeans, meanwhile, are shocked and dismayed that an internationally acclaimed artist could be jailed for such an old offense.

"To see him thrown to the lions and put in prison because of ancient history — and as he was traveling to an event honoring him — is absolutely horrifying," French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand said after Polanski was arrested upon arrival in Switzerland to attend the Zurich Film Festival, where he was to receive a lifetime achievement award. "There's an America we love and an America that scares us, and it's that latter America that has just shown us its face." In comments that appeared to be directed at Swiss and American authorities to free Polanski, Mitterrand added that both he and French President Nicolas Sarkozy hoped for a "rapid resolution to the situation which would allow Roman Polanski to rejoin his family as quickly as possible."

Polanski, who won an Academy Award in 2003 for directing The Pianist, admitted to having unlawful sexual intercourse with 13-year-old Samantha Geimer as part of a plea bargain in which other charges — including drugging and raping the girl — were dropped. However, fearful that the Los Angeles judge in the case was about to renege on the deal and slap him with a long prison sentence, Polanski fled the U.S. in 1978 and never returned. He has spent the past 30 years in France, where he has raised a family and continued his career unhindered. That is, until Saturday. Swiss police seized Polanski on an international warrant issued by U.S. authorities in 2005 and, under bilateral treaties, will now extradite him to the U.S. unless barred from doing so by Swiss courts.

France never complied with the arrest warrant because its laws prohibit the extradition of its citizens to other countries. At the same time, many people in France have over the years downplayed the gravity of Polanski's crime because of his immense talent and artistry as a director. The 76-year-old, who was born in France, has increasingly been seen as the victim of an obsessive U.S. justice system that is ready to pluck him up and drag him off to prison at any moment. Those feelings were reinforced by the 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, in which filmmaker Marina Zenovich argues that the judge and prosecutor in the case may have engaged in legal misconduct in obtaining Polanski's guilty plea. The film also contains an appeal by Geimer, the victim, for Polanski to be pardoned — leaving his European supporters perplexed as to why U.S. officials wouldn't finally close the book on him.

"The French view Polanski as an artist and celebrity and feel he deserves a different kind of treatment than ordinary people, which just isn't an option in the U.S.," says Ted Stanger, an author and longtime resident of France who has written extensively on the differing public views and attitudes across the Atlantic. "The French in particular, and Europeans in general, don't understand why it isn't possible for American officials to intervene and say, 'Hey, it's been over 30 years and things look a little different now. Let's just forget this thing.' "

Indeed, police in other European countries have turned a blind eye to Polanski's travel across the continent for work and pleasure over the years. The director has even made frequent visits to Switzerland in the past without any problem. His supporters claim that Swiss authorities finally caved in to U.S. pressure to nab the director. But Swiss and U.S. justice officials say they knew where he would be thanks to press releases by the Zurich Film Festival touting his presence to accept the award. "There was a valid arrest request, and we knew when he was coming. That's why he was taken into custody," says Guido Balmer, spokesman for Switzerland's Justice Ministry. Adds Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office: "It wasn't a big secret that he was going to be in Zurich — they had announced it on the Internet."

As Polanski's fans across Europe decry his detention, his lawyers say they're filing appeals of both his arrest and eventual transfer to the U.S. "To the French mind, this has made Polanski a combination of Oscar Wilde and Alfred Dreyfus — the victim of systematic persecution," Stanger says. "To the American mind, he's proof that no one is above the law." That's a perception gap as wide as the Atlantic.