Monday, September 28, 2009

Deux poids, deux mesures

The official French reaction to Roman Polanski's arrest has been rather surprising. When "The Jungle" in Calais was closed last week, minister Eric Besson said he regretted having to crack down on such unfortunate people, but the law is the law. When immigrants are expelled from France, minister Brice Hortefeux reminds those given to compassion that France is a country in which the rule of law is sacred.

Yet when a film director who pleaded guilty to sex with a minor and then fled the United States to avoid the consequences was arrested this weekend in Switzerland, minister Frédéric Mitterrand rushed to the microphones to make known his shock and consternation and assured journalists that his reaction was shared by the president. The rule of law was not mentioned. But a certain anti-Americanism was evident in M. Mitterrand's remarks:

Just as there is an America which is generous and which we like, so there is an America which is frightening, and that is the America which has just revealed its face.

Now, granted, 31 years have passed. And the victim would prefer to see the case forgotten. She has moved on. Perhaps the rest of us should as well. In the end I may even be persuaded that this is the best course of action, all things considered.

But in the meantime I think that, for once, the rule of law might well be invoked by a government that is in the habit of relying on it only when it is convenient. Why, indeed, shiould the minister of culture be involved in a case of statutory rape? To listen to M. Mitterrand, you'd think that this was yet another of those cases in which "American puritanism" and "philistinism" got in the way of the sophisticated and comprehensive understanding necessary to understand why Polanski acted as he did. What else could explain the acharnement of the American authorities, perpetuating the alleged vindictiveness of Polanski's original judge?

And yet, and yet ... the facts of the case are not disputed. For some reason not clear to me, Polanski deserves forgiveness because he is ... a creator and was himself once a victim of Nazi persecution. I have difficulty following this argument. I have difficulty understanding why it is the minister of culture arguing this case rather than the minister of justice. I have difficulty seeing why the rule of law should not be allowed to take its course. If Polanski is to go free because he is now 76, because his victim has forgiven him, and because no public purpose would be served by sending him to prison, then so be it. But that is a case to be made in court, and not by the minister of culture in front of a microphone. I am glad to see that other observers agree with me.

P.S. After I last criticized Frédéric Mitterrand, several readers e-mailed to say that I really ought to read his book of memoirs. I have now done so and agree that it is a very good and very moving self-portrait. Having read it, I think better of the man. But the man is now a minister, and his public actions to date continue to raise questions in my mind.

P.P.S. There's more from the UMP in the anti-American vein:
«Ca doit nous interpeller également sur un autre point», a estimé le porte-parole adjoint Dominique Paillé. «On nous présente toujours les Etats-Unis comme une très grande démocratie et une sorte de démocratie exemplaire». Or «on découvre aujourd’hui qu’il n’y a pas de prescription pour les crimes et délits» dans ce pays, a-t-il relevé.

Statute of limitations? The man has been a fugitive for 31 years. I don't think France has a statute of limitations for fugitives either. This is simply obtuse.

UPDATE: A good comment by Scott Lemieux.


kirkmc said...

I totally agree with you. Yet my French wife does not. She thinks that be cause it was so long ago, it should be forgotten. (She doesn't think that it should be forgotten just because he's a famous filmmaker.) My attitude is that, beside the fact that he drugged and raped a 13-year old, it's only being considered a case of statuatory rape because he plea-bargained, the fact that he skipped out is what makes this serious. Just as a hit-and-run is 100 times worse than any car accident, leaving the country to avoid jail time - regardless of the situation - is a very serious affair. It is no longer about the case, but about contempt for the legal system.

But the French are more than happy to let people slide for their crimes; perhaps something they developed after the Liberation? Just like that Italian mystery author, who had been convicted of murder in Italy, and whose case was championed by so many artists and intellectuals here, they think that one's worth as a "createur" trumps ones responsibility to the law.

It disgusts me. I have long been critical about France's extremely strange legal system seems to not want to punish people for their crimes - look at the current trial where two cops in a car hit and killed a kid crossing the street _in a crosswalk_; they will get the usual suspended sentences. Politicians regularly get away with slaps on their wrists, _and_ get reelected after a year of ineligibility.

But Mitterand's comments were especially disgusting. Saying what he did about a child abuser who pled guilty to a lesser charge then ran away makes him look just as bad.

Vertigo said...

Thank for writing this and I completely agree with you.

Passerby said...

Reactions to Roman Polanski's arrest have definetly been overkill.

It's a very old story, and given the situation (i.e the vicitm clear position on the issue) I'm not sure that it's the right thing to prosecute the man. I suspect that the prosecutors are banking on his celebrity status to make some publicity on themselves around the case. It's unlikely that an average runaway, in a similar case, would catch the attention of the US Justice.

That being said, Roman Polansky is charged of raping a 13 years old girl. It is definetly not a minor offense!
As Kirkmc pointed out, similar arguments were made when Cesare Battisti was supposed to be extraded to Italy. But, even in his case the public opinion & political elite were split. The right tended to favor sending him to Italy (hence his second runaway).

I find disturbing that in the case of Polanski, there are so few people to raise their voices in favor of the rule of justice.
Afterall Fourniret didn't get much clémence for his crimes made during the Eighties...


I don't think that this story has anything to do with France's legal system (which I don't see as strange either).
He was arrested in Switzerland for a crime committed in the US. As far as I know the protesters are not french judges shielding Polanski with French law. They are citizens voicing their (regretable) opinion.

Skeptical Bystander said...

In answer to your question (Why, indeed, shiould the minister of culture be involved in a case of statutory rape?), it seems somewhat obvious to me that the Minister of Culture would have something to say about this, since Roman Polanski has lived in France for much of his life and is an internationally acclaimed director of films, which are cultural objects par excellence.
Having lived in France for two decades, I as an American expat can say this is one of a handful of issues that reflects a basic difference between the French and the American mindset. I can understand the French viewpoint (as expressed by the previous commenter's wife) and share it to some extent. Without wishing to oversimplify, the Catholic heritage of France makes it possible for the average French person to conceive of foregiveness where it it unthinkable to the average American who, no matter what his religious preference may be, has some Puritan baggage that gets in the way. The French reaction to Mary Kay Le Tourneau's "affair" with her 12-year old student was also quite different from the typical reaction in the US, probably for the same underlying reasons.

kirkmc said...


No, this has nothing to do with the French legal system, but the reaction of the French reflects the way their legal system punishes criminals.


You may be right about forgiveness - it's something my wife often says. But here it's not about forgiving the crime; after all, Polanski is not going back for a trial, but actually for sentencing and serving time (assuming they put him in jail). He's already pleaded guilty (albeit to a lesser charge than what he did, which, remember, is drugging and raping a 13-year old).

Skeptical Bystander said...

KirkMc - I see your point but I don't think it is about forgiving the crime itself; rather, it is about recognizing the human capacity for error, and for redemption through recognition of the error of one's ways. One of the subtexts of the commentary from cultural leaders like Mitterand is that this man has already suffered enough and has probably atoned for his original sin.
If it is true that the victim has moved on, then there is a bit of acharnement in the desire to bring Polanski to justice. In case it matters, in addition to being American by birth, I am a woman and a feminist. I loathe violence against women and especially against minors. What Polanski did thirty plus years ago was wrong. He is almost old enough now to benefit from some kind of sunset law.

kirkmc said...


I understand your point of view, but I see it as slightly different. He was very careful, during these 30 years, to not be in a place where he could be arrested and brought back to serve his time. Again, it's not about him having "suffered enough" - btw, it's worth noting that there was a cash settlement that he made to the victim to pay for her suffering - but rather that he conscyously evaded paying the price that he knew he deserved to pay. It's not like someone who wasn't caught, or who just managed to slip through the net.

Again, the crime here is both against the victim and against the legal system of the US. As I said above, it's like a hit-and-run is ten times more serious than a simple car accident.

Anonymous said...

Polanski has not apologized (so he cannot be forgiven). In fact he has done everything in his power to viciously attack the character of the victim and to evade justice. And after all these years of impunity he still has the gall to claim to be in a "fighting spirit."

I think it's disgraceful so many of you are defending a wealthy, privileged, and unrepentant child-rapist. Polanski's rape-apologist allies are scum.

bernard said...

I completely agree with your view, Art. And I do keep in mind that this is the government that had no hesitation breaking a former President's pledge and extraditing to Italy former repented Red Brigade members who had been quietly given asilum in the 1980s in exchange for total cessation of any political activity of any kind (and who had respected these terms).

kirkmc said...

I saw a clip of Jack Lang on the news this morning. He, too, is confusing the statute of limitations with the fact that Polanski is a fugitive. You would think these guys would get the facts before opening their mouths. I am stunned, however, by the hostility of some of the reactions (including Lang's).

kirkmc said...

Ha! It may have been Polanski's lawyers who were the cause of his arrest:,0,465846.story

Cincinna said...

All the comments on different cultural perception of the issues are interesting.

How many would feel the same about Polanski had they actually read the testimony of the 13 year old girl?

71% of the French, according to a poll in Paris Match, are not that far from we puritanical Americans.

Roman Polanski a été arrêté samedi soir en Suisse...

71% C'est mérité. Nul n'a le droit de se soustraire à la justice.

12% C'est un coup médiatique. Le procureur de Los Angeles veut se faire un nom.

10% C'est dommageable. Roman Polanski a été piégé comme un malfrat qu'il n'est pas.

7% C'est scandaleux. Les faits remontent à plus de trente ans.

Most decent normal human beings believe that children should not be sexual objects, and that drugging,raping and sodomizing a 13 year old is a criminal offense, as is cowardly flight from facing the consequences of one's actions.

I doubt this incident was the first or last that Polanski was involved in.

Anonymous said...

deux poids deux mesures indeed:

In 1970, the year Polanski perpetrated his crime on a single victim, Henry Kissinger orchestrated the illegal bombing of Cambodia, resulting in at least 600,000 civilian deaths and untold maiming, misery and suffering.

The U.S. "justice" system has ensured that everything from mere requests for testimony by countries such as Spain, France, Chile and Argentina to a lawsuit accusing Kissinger of causing kidnapping, torture, and death have failed on technical grounds. In spite of literally truck loads of evidence that would have made any Nuremberg prosecutor cry with joy.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. Henry continues to be celebrated, admired, fawned over and consulted on news/talk shows and in the corridors of wealth, power, business and academia.