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Image: French reaction to Polanski
Jacques Brinon  /  AP
A woman signs a petition in support of film director Roman Polanski at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris on Monday.
updated 9/28/2009 2:12:11 PM ET 2009-09-28T18:12:11

Was Roman Polanski "thrown to the lions because of ancient history?" That's what France's culture minister says, and many French people agree.

France has rushed to the filmmaker's defense since he was arrested this weekend in Switzerland on a three-decade-old U.S. charge of having sex with a 13-year-old girl. French government ministers and France's cultural world have lauded Polanski as a great artist, a family man and a survivor of countless hardships who deserves peace at age 76.

There's a gulf between how Polanski is seen in France and by many outside the entertainment world in the U.S.: in Paris, he's not a fugitive wanted for a sex crime but rather a revered artist and public figure who has never had much reason to hide.

While Polanski would have risked arrest to attend the 2003 Academy Awards in Los Angeles — where he was named best director for "The Pianist" — he is free to climb the red carpet at every Cannes Film Festival. Actor Harrison Ford eventually delivered the golden Oscar statuette to Polanski at another French film festival in the Normandy beach town of Deauville.

Polanski — who has dual French and Polish nationality — has long been protected by France's refusal to extradite its citizens. But there's more to it than that: France's indulgence toward artists has played into the overwhelming sympathy for him, as has the French distaste for peering into public figures' private lives.

Polanski has lived in France since he fled the United States in 1978, after pleading guilty to one count of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor but before being formally sentenced. By all reports he leads a quiet life with his wife, actress Emmanuelle Seigner, and their two children. His early life was marked by tragedy — his mother died at Auschwitz during the Holocaust, and his second wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered in 1969 by followers of Charles Manson. She was eight months pregnant.

While French Cabinet ministers are generally cautious about commenting on the legal affairs of other countries, saying they don't want to interfere, they have been astonishingly outspoken on behalf of Polanski, who risks extradition to the United States.

Both French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner stressed Polanski's artistic gifts in their defense of him, though in theory all men — regardless of talent — are equal before the law.

Kouchner called the arrest "sinister," adding: "A man of such talent, recognized in the entire world, recognized especially in the country that arrested him — all this just isn't nice."

To many here, the slap of American justice seemed particularly sharp as the arrest came as Polanski was entering Switzerland to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Zurich Film Festival.

Mitterrand said, "To see him like that, thrown to the lions because of ancient history, really doesn't make any sense."

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Mitterrand continued with a jab against the United States: "In the same way that there is a generous America that we like, there is also a scary America that has just shown its face."

Many find it odd that Polanski is being sought for a 32-year-old crime. His French lawyers have stressed that the statute of limitations on the case would have expired long ago in France.

Polanski's victim, Samantha Geimer, who identified herself publicly years ago, has joined in Polanski's bid for dismissal, saying she wants the case to be over. She sued Polanski and reached an undisclosed settlement.

Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie was one of the few leading figures here to mention Polanski's victim in her appraisal of Polanski's case. The former justice minister said it "poses a problem" that the U.S. is still seeking his extradition — since Geimer herself wants to move on.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Roman Polanski’s life, career

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  1. Love lost

    Roman Polanski, the French film director of Polish origin, poses with his wife, American actress Sharon Tate, in London in the 1960s. In 1969, a pregnant Tate was murdered by followers of Charles Manson. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. French legend

    Polanski, left, is seen with French actress Catherine Deneuve and producer Eugene Gutowski in London on Aug. 17, 1964. Deneuve was about to star in Polanski's film "Repulsion." (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Hollywood mark

    Actress Mia Farrow stars in Polanski's 1968 film "Rosemary's Baby." The director established his reputation as a major commercial filmmaker with the success of the film about a woman whose pregnancy is awash in horror and satanic doings. Polanski's screenplay adaptation earned him an Academy Award nomination. (Paramount Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Violent Shakespeare

    Polanski, left, takes part in a news conference with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner on Aug. 2, 1970, concerning their planned film production of Shakespeare's "Macbeth." The bleak and violent film was Polanski's first feature following his wife's murder. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Behind the camera

    Polanski is seen on location shooting Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' in Northumberland, England, in 1970. (Ian Tyas / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Major success

    Actress Faye Dunaway takes instructions from Polanski on the set of "Chinatown." Polanski returned to Hollywood in 1973 to make the classic detective story. A major critical and box office succes in the summer of 1974, the film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. Stars Jack Nicholson and Dunaway both received Oscar nominations for their roles, but screenwriter Robert Towne won the lone Oscar for the film. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Legal trouble

    Polanski leaves court in Santa Monica, Calif., in September 1977. The director was accused of raping a 13-year-old girl he photographed during a modeling session at Nicholson's home in Los Angeles. In a deal with prosecutors, Polanski pled guilty to one of six charges against him, unlawful sexual intercourse, and was sent to prison for 42 days of psychological evaluation. Faced with the prospect of further prison time, Polanski fled the country in 1978, living as an exile in France. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Another thriller

    Polanski's film career grew fitful as financing became harder to securein the early '80s. He remained busy with theater and opera productions in Europe but proved he could still land major film stars with 1988's "Frantic," starring Harrison Ford and Emmanuelle Seigner, whom Polanski would marry in 1989. (Warner Bros. Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Cannes carpet

    Polanski and Seigner arrive at the gala screening of his film "The Pianist" during the 55th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, on May 24, 2002. The couple have two children together. (Francois Guillot / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Oscar winner

    "The Pianist" tells the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish pianist (played by Adrien Brody) who, during World War II, lived in the Warsaw ghettos. He escaped from Nazi concentration camps, and, thanks to music, lived to tell about it. The film is based on Szpilman's memoir, published in 1946. Brody won an Oscar for his role. (Studio Canal) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. His story

    Polanski celebrates after being awarded the Golden Palm for "The Pianist" during the closing ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival on May 26, 2002. The story "was something I know about, remember very well, something that could help me recreate the events without talking about myself," Polanski said at Cannes. (Olivier Laban-Mattei / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Special delivery

    Polanski, right, shows off his Academy Award for best director for "The Pianist" which he received from Harrison Ford during the American Film festival in Deauville, France, on Sept. 7, 2003. Polanski could not receive the award at the actual Oscar ceremony because he was still wanted in the United States. (Mychele Daniau / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. His own 'Twist'

    Polanski followed "The Pianist" with the 2005 Charles Dickens adaptation, "Oliver Twist." (TriStar Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Something to sink his teeth into

    Polanski poses with an actor during a news conference to present his musical "Dance of the Vampires" in Berlin, Germany, on Oct. 11, 2006. (Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Enough is enough

    Polanski angrily leaves a news conference at the 60th Cannes Film Festival on May 20, 2007, during a gathering of equally renowned peers. The director told journalists that their questions about an anthology of short films the filmmakers had all worked on were pathetic. (Fred Dufour / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Wave for 'W.'

    Polanski waves on the red carpet before a screening of director Oliver Stone's film "W." at the Turin Film Festival in Turin, Italy, on Nov. 21, 2008. (Massimo Pinca / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. New documentary

    Polanski is seen in Oberhausen, Germany, on Sept. 29, 2008. That year, the Emmy-winning documentary "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" debuts at the Sundance Film Festival, reigniting the debate over the case against the director. The documentary uncovers new information about actions by the late Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, suggesting he inappropriately consulted with a prosecutor not assigned to the case. (Roberto Pfeil / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Still shooting

    Polanski is seen during the shooting of his film "The Ghost" in List on Sylt, Germany, on Feb. 23, 2009. The story centers on a ghostwriter who is hired to complete the memoirs of a former British prime minister. He uncovers secrets that put his own life in jeopardy. Most of the story takes place in an oceanfront house during the middle of winter. (Georg Supanz / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
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