Corruption, guilt, twisted values - the real reasons the French lionise Roman Polanski

Protected: Roman Polanski

Protected: Polanski is a French citizen

Roman Polanski's arrest has been greeted with outrage by the French political establishment. President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for Switzerland to release him as quickly as possible, as has the Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

And the Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand has said he is ‘dumbfounded’ by the arrest and ‘strongly regrets that a new ordeal is being inflicted on someone who has already experienced so many of them’.

At first sight, the reaction of France’s leaders may seem incredible.

After all, anyone in France convicted of a similar offence to the one Polanski committed — which, none of us should forget, is having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl — would face very severe punishment.

But for Polanski it is different — and, disturbingly, there are many reasons, both social and historical, to explain the privileged position he has enjoyed since he first arrived as a fugitive from U.S. justice.

The truth is that the French political establishment has never got used to the idea that its own members, les notables, are subject to the same laws as everyone else.

They do not always see the need to pay the same taxes as other mortals; many of them regard the public purse as their own; they believe the details of their private lives are sacrosanct — and if they get into trouble they expect to be protected by the forces of the state.

In this sense, the outrage expressed by Sarkozy and Frederic Mitterrand over Polanski’s arrest can be seen as the instinctive response of the French establishment, who are determined to look after one of their own.

Take Frederic Mitterrand, the minister who has rushed most volubly to Polanski’s aid. He is a member of one of the most successful and influential families in France.

His uncle Francois was President of the Republic for 14 years.

Another uncle was an army general, his father Robert was a very successful industrialist and eminence grise, who ran his brother’s political office for many years.

While in office, Francois Mitterrand used his power ruthlessly to protect his privacy. He pretended to be living a conventional married life in the Elysee Palace.

In fact, he was holed up with his mistress in a secret government safehouse.

A French journalist who exposed this situation was kidnapped and beaten up by state heavies.

Support: President Nicolas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner

Public support: President Nicolas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner

Mitterrand also used his position to advance his family and amass a private fortune that would have been the envy of many corrupt African heads of state. After he left power, one of his sons, Jean-Christophe, was convicted of corruption.

That corrupt tradition did not end with the departure of President Mitterrand. His successor, Jacques Chirac, was also accused of using public money to fund his political campaigns.

And last week, Chirac’s Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, went on trial in the Paris High Court in a tawdry case in which President Sarkozy has accused him of running a dirty tricks squad and forging bank statements to prove Sarkozy had been laundering money when he was Minister of the Interior.

The case involves two other former prime ministers, the former head of the French secret service, a galaxy of former ministers and political stars of both Left and Right, and is expected to run and run.

Last year, Sarkozy’s former wife, Cecilia, accused him of beating her up while he was running for election as President and of using his influence to persuade the Paris police to drop the investigation.

Nothing could better illustrate the morally lax and cynically corrupt establishment of which Roman Polanski has now become an honoured member.

Family firm: Frederic Mitterrand

Family firm: Frederic Mitterrand

For Polanski, 76, has never forgotten his French roots. He was born in France and is a French citizen, which is why the U.S. government has been unable to extradite him.

And France, in turn, is extremely proud that a man as talented as Polanski undoubtedly is, should have chosen to work in French cinema rather than the much despised (albeit extremely popular) Hollywood film industry.

In France, his status as a ‘great artist’ will also have accorded him a certain amount of moral leeway. To criticise bad behaviour by an artist is seen by the sophisticated French, who regard Paris as the centre of the arts, as preposterously naive.

And so, protected by this semi-official status as an untouchable, Polanski has enjoyed the freedom in Paris to pursue his illustrious career as a film director and actor. His remarkable movie The Pianist even won an Oscar in 2002 — although naturally the director did not travel to Hollywood to receive the award.

In his original defence, Polanski unbelievably said that his 13-year- old victim had agreed to take part in sex and that she was ‘not unresponsive’. Whatever light these remarks may shed on the mind of Roman Polanski, the case is a striking illustration of the cultural and moral gap between America and France.

Samantha Geimer

Distress: Samantha Geimer, pictured last year, has accused LA prosecutors of victimising her over her account of her ordeal with Roman Polanski

Where American public opinion regards Polanski as a sordid sex offender who deserves to be punished, the French generally accept him as a man who, in Frederic Mitterrand’s words, ‘has suffered enough’.

This is partly, of course, because Polanski’s wife, the film star Sharon Tate, was horribly murdered in Hollywood in 1969 by members of the Charles Manson sect when she was eight months pregnant with their child.

But there are also more complex reasons that are bound up with French history and their guilt about their treatment of the Jews during the War.

Although he was born in Paris, Polanski’s parents were Polish citizens. His father was Jewish, his mother was half-Jewish and half-Catholic, and in 1936 they left France and returned to Poland.

After the German occupation of Poland in 1939, the family was arrested and imprisoned in the Cracow ghetto by the Nazis.

Polanski’s mother was sent to Auschwitz, where she was murdered; his father was interned in the concentration camp at Mauthausen, and survived.

Sympathy factor: Polanski  with his murdered ex-wife, actress Sharon Tate

Sympathy factor: Polanski with his murdered wife, actress Sharon Tate

Roman Polanski himself managed to escape from the Cracow ghetto with the aid of the Catholic side of his mother’s family, and was reunited with his father after the war.

The irony, of course, is that if the family had remained in France, and particularly in Paris where they lived, all three would probably have been arrested by French police and sent to Auschwitz, destination of practically all the Jews deported from France.

And all three of them would have died.

Of the 76,000 Jews deported from France during the Occupation, only 2,500 returned at the end of the war.

In 1942, the French police chief, Rene Bousquet, even offered to deport Jewish children at a time when the Gestapo had not thought of suggesting this.

In Paris during the Occupation, the nine-year-old Roman Polanski would have been forced to wear a yellow star and would have been in extreme danger.

The guilt for France’s failure to protect these desperate fugitives, many of them French citizens, lasts to this day.

And Frederic Mitterrand, in his earlier life a highly talented television presenter and wit, may be even more sensitive to this past than most.



Should Roman Polanski be extradited?

Should Roman Polanski be extradited?

  • Yes 5170 votes
  • No 1757 votes

Now share your opinion


His mother was related by marriage to Eugene Deloncle, one of the leaders of an extreme Right-wing and anti-Semitic terrorist group called the Cagoule, which was funded by Mussolini’s slush fund.

It is memories such as these that help to explain why Polanski’s status as lifelong victim in France is securely established.

Protecting him from deportation today is, in the French establishment’s eyes, the very least they can do.


The comments below have been moderated in advance.

The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now