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PARIS (Reuters) - France's political elite rallied to the defense of Roman Polanski on Sunday, calling on Switzerland to free the 76-year-old film director rather than extradite him to the United States.
Artists and film makers also urged the release of Polanski, who faces charges of having sex with a girl of 13 in 1977, accusing Switzerland of being overzealous in pursuing such an old case and bowing to U.S. demands.
Polanski was due to receive a prize for his life's work at the Zurich Film Festival on Sunday, but was arrested on a 1978 U.S. arrest warrant after arriving in Switzerland on Saturday.
"I think this is awful and totally unjust," French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand told reporters.
"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," he added.
The culture ministry said French President Nicolas Sarkozy was following the case closely and wanted the swift release of Polanski, while Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he had expressed his concerns to his Swiss counterpart.
Polanski holds French citizenship and is married to French singer and actress Emmanuelle Seigner. He has spent much of his life here since fleeing the United States in 1978, but regularly visits countries where he does not expect extradition woe.
Robert Harris, a British novelist who said he had been working with Polanski for much of the past three years writing two screenplays, expressed outrage over the arrest.
"I am shocked that any man of 76, whether distinguished or not, should have been treated in such a fashion," he said in a statement, adding that Polanski had often visited Switzerland and even had a house in the resort of Gstaad.
"It is hard not to believe that this heavy-handed action must be in some way politically motivated," he said.
Born in Paris, Polanski moved to Poland with his Jewish family when still a toddler shortly before World War Two. His mother died in a Nazi concentration camp, but Polanski avoided capture and spent his youth in Poland before moving to the West.
His ties with Poland are still strong and Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said he might appeal directly to the United States over the case.
"I am considering approaching the American authorities over the possibility of the U.S. president proclaiming an act of clemency which would settle the matter once and for all," Sikorski was quoted as saying by the PAP news agency.
Poland's film-makers' association also rose to his defense.
"We do not understand why the Swiss invited Polanski to a film festival, where he was to have received a life's achievement award, and then arrested him," said association president, Jacek Bromski.
"We regard that as a scandalous situation and an example of incomprehensible overzealousness."
Additional reporting by Warsaw bureau; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Elizabeth Fullerton