October 1, 2009 3:00 am

Politicians face backlash over Polanski support

Politicians in France and Poland are facing a public backlash over their support for the self-confessed child abuser Roman Polanski, the world-renowned film director.

Having misjudged the public mood by condemning Switzerland's arrest of Mr Polanski on 32-year-old charges of illegal sex with a 13-year-old girl in the US, the governments are now being forced to backtrack on their calls to free him.

In France, where Nicolas Sarkozy, president, has demanded strong penalties for sex offenders, some believe that the government's action in defending the Oscar-winning celebrity highlights the deep divisions between a Paris-based ruling elite and the people they represent.

Yesterday, Luc Chatel, French government spokesman, distanced himself from comments made on Sunday by ministers after Mr Polanski's arrest was revealed.

Frédéric Mitterrand, culture minister, had dismissed the offence as "an old story that doesn't make much sense", and foreign minister Bernard Kouchner had called the arrest "sinister". He also, with his Polish counterpart Radoslaw Sikorski, wrote to Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, calling for the extradition warrant to be dropped.

Mr Chatel said that the film director, born in France to Polish parents, was "neither above nor below the law. There is a legal process in train for a serious affair - the rape of a minor."

Donald Tusk, Poland's prime minister, has called on ministers to express "greater restraint" over Mr Polanski's travails, after Bogdan Zdrojewski, culture minister, denounced the arrest as a "legalised lynching". Mr Tusk told reporters: "This is a matter which obviously involves an outstanding Polish director, and did happen many years ago."

He said: "But this is a matter which involves rape, having sex with a child, and we cannot mix politics into it."

In France, public opinion polls have consistently shown that 65-75 per cent of the population believes Mr Polanski should be extradited to the US, while many members of the ruling UMP party have also criticised the government's actions.

Mr Polanski, who admitted a charge of illegal sex with a minor, fled the US in 1978 after he was told the judge would not abide by a plea bargain agreed with the victim, who has since called for the charges to be dropped.

In Poland, public opinion has also begun to grow against the director, with many newspapers calling for him to return to the US.

Alain Duhamel, a French political commentator, said the opinion polls revealed much about the divisions between the elite and the mass in France. "There is a Parisian France and a French France," he said.

"There is the intellectual, cultural world, a world of complicity and so it shows solidarity" with Mr Polanski, Mr Duhamel said. "And then there is deep France, which is more classic, more conservative. This affair will feed the feeling that France's leaders and its intellectuals live by codes and rules that have nothing to do with ordinary people."

Adding weight to Mr Duhamel's analysis, editorials in Paris-based newspapers such as Liberation, the left-leaning daily founded by Jean-Paul Sartre, largely supported demands that Mr Polanski's extradition and charges be dropped, while provincial papers often attacked his supporters.

"Can we be so forgetful of the tragedy that was lived by a young girl of 13 that we describe it as nothing more than an accident in the life of a genius? Rape is never nice," wrote the editorial in La Charente Libre.

In Hollywood, the mood remains firmly supportive, with many cinema actors and directors signing a petition calling for his immediate release.

But in Switzerland, public reaction to Mr Polanski's arrest has been limited. The Swiss government has been united in its defence of the detention. Still, in the face of the international outcry, Micheline Calmy-Rey, foreign minister, has admitted a lack of "sensitivity" in the handling of the arrest, saying her ministry had not been told in advance in spite of the potential it had for international repercussions.

By Peggy Hollinger in Paris, Jan Cienski in Warsaw, Haig Simonian in Zurich and Matt Garrahan in Los Angeles

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