It’s hard to watch France’s political and cultural elite rush to support filmmaker Roman Polanski against extradition to the United States on a decades-old sex charge and not wonder exactly how they interpret the national motto “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” It’s tempting to ask whether they’re defending the liberty to break the law and skip town, respecting the equality of all before the law and championing a brotherhood of artists who can do no wrong.
(Photo: Roman Polanski, 19 Feb 2009/Hannibal Hanschke)
Here in Paris, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner declared the arrest was “a bit sinister … frankly, (arresting) a man of such talent recognised around the world, recognised in the country where he was arrested — that’s not very nice.” He and his Polish counterpart have written to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the issue. Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand said “just as there is a generous America that we like, there’s also an America that scares us, and that’s the America that has just shown us its face.” Directors, actors and intellectuals have been signing a petition demanding Polanski’s immediate release.
Almost all the focus is on the argument that Polanski is a brilliant director, the charge of unlawful sex with a 13-year old dates back to 1977 and the victim herself says she wants the whole issue to be forgotten. Almost completely ignored is the fact that he fled the U.S. to escape sentencing, which added a crime to the original crime. There is such a widespread assumption that all artists and intellectuals would automatically support Polanski that Paris papers today — both the left-of-centre Libération and the conservative Le Figaro — wrote with an air of surprise that Hollywood was not storming the barricades to back him.
The French Greens leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit made headlines by bucking the trend and saying he was “ill at ease” with the rush to absolve Polanski of raping a minor and the culture minister should have been more cautious in his comments.
Across the Atlantic, by contrast, Hollywood’s hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times, reviewed the objections by Polanski’s supporters and concluded: “Plausible or preposterous, these arguments are eclipsed by a simple fact: Polanski fled the country … the Justice Department and L.A.’s district attorney are right to seek extradition.”
And almost nobody in the media here in France asks the tough questions that Fr. Tom Reese, S.J. (photo at right) did in his Washington Post blog post entitled “Father Polanski would go to jail”:
“Polanski’s defenders … argue that he should not be punished. They say that the girl was willing and sexually experienced and she has forgiven him (after receiving a settlement). They even cite his tragic childhood and life as an excuse. And besides, it is ancient history. Such arguments from paedophile priests would be laughed out of court and lambasted by everyone, and rightly so…
“The Catholic Church has rightly been put under a microscope when 4 percent of its priests were involved in abuse, but what about the film industry? The world has truly changed. Entertainment is the new religion with sex, violence and money the new Trinity. The directors and stars are worshipped and quickly forgiven for any infraction as long as the PR agent is as skilled as a saintly confessor. Entertainment, not religion, is the new opiate of the people and we don’t want our supply disturbed.
“Is there a double standard here? You bet.”
There’s a lot to say about the different ways Americans and French approach the law. But let’s go right to Tom Reese’s question. Do you think Polanski’s supporters cut him slack they wouldn’t think of permitting for a paedophile priest? Is the entertainment industry setting our values?