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Free Roman Polanski? Case shows US-France cultural divide

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PARIS – In Europe, the detention of director Roman Polanski in a Swiss jail on a 31-year-old US warrant is unfolding as a transatlantic cultural and legal clash.

In France, and in influential circles across Europe, the main position might be described as “Free Polanski!” But among ordinary Europeans, there’s an emerging outrage over what is seen as the elite classes defense of a man who fled justice.

The detention and possible extradition of the director of “Chinatown” and “The Pianist” – for fleeing the US in 1978 after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting a 13-year old – has stoked animosities here about a perceived American petit bourgeoisie mentality. It also plays into a French cultural sensibility about “the artist” as a creature deserving special status and refuge.

Indeed, it is a case of crime and non-punishment worthy of a film script of aesthetic if not moral tension: An aged, Oscar-winning world celebrity who has lived three decades as a fugitive – and his now-middle age victim forgives him – is backed by the soft power of Hollywood. On the other side, California prosecutors, applying the letter of the law and doggedly chasing a man who admitted to "unlawful sex with a minor," have a case that is now laced with suspicion of legal tampering and judicial impropriety.

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