After outcry, France changes tone on Roman Polanski case

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s government changed its tone on Wednesday on the arrest of Roman Polanski for having sex with a 13-year-old girl, describing the charges as serious after initially rushing to the film director’s defense.

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France and Poland, where the 76-year-old Oscar-winning director spent his childhood, at first loudly protested against Polanski’s arrest last weekend.

But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday that it was for judges, not diplomats, to handle the case which dates back to 1977.

After French politicians across the spectrum initially voiced strong unease over the arrest, a government spokesman modified the official line on Wednesday, saying that Polanski was “neither above nor below the law.”

“A judicial procedure is under way concerning a serious case, the rape of a minor, and the U.S. and Swiss justice systems are doing their work,” spokesman Luc Chatel told reporters after a cabinet meeting.

“On the other hand, there’s emotion, and we can understand the emotion stirred up by this belated arrest, more than 30 years after the events, and the method of the arrest,” he said.

Polanski, who holds dual French and Polish citizenship, was arrested at the request of the United States when he flew into Switzerland on Saturday to receive a lifetime achievement prize.

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France’s political and artistic elite defended him, with Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand accusing the United States of showing a frightening face by seeking his extradition.

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he had written to Clinton, who told reporters at the United Nations on Wednesday that she had not yet seen the letter. “But this is a matter that is not before me, this is a matter that is in the justice system of our government,” she said.

Polanski pleaded guilty in 1977 to having sex with the girl in actor Jack Nicholson’s home, skipped bail and fled to France.

Several French politicians, including members of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s own UMP party, have accused the government of elitism and acting in haste. Green Member of the European Parliament Daniel Cohn-Bendit said Mitterrand should have waited before more details of the case were known.

Extreme right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen denounced a “political-artistic caste” claiming special privileges.

“Charges of raping a 13-year-old child, that’s not something trivial,” UMP parliamentarian Marc Laffineur said.

Poland has also changed its tone, with Prime Minister Donald Tusk urging moderation.

Sarkozy himself has refrained from speaking out. On Sunday, the culture ministry said Sarkozy wanted Polanski’s swift release. But on Wednesday, Chatel said Sarkozy was feeling “the same range of emotions that I and all French people share.”

Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations and Sophie Hardach in Paris, writing by Sophie Hardach; editing by David Stamp