04.19.10

Polanski Begs Obama for Mercy

Why did French President Nicolas Sarkozy hand-deliver a letter last week to President Obama from fugitive director Roman Polanski asking for leniency? Eric Pape on Polanski’s private plea for clemency.

In an astonishing act of backroom international diplomacy, French President Nicolas Sarkozy hand-delivered a letter from fugitive Oscar-winning filmmaker Roman Polanski to President Barack Obama last week on the sidelines of the international anti-nuke proliferation summit in Washington, according to a small and little-noticed article embedded in the prestigious French political magazine, L’Express.

It is unclear what Polanski or President Sarkozy, for that matter, think that Obama might be able or willing to do for a man who has acknowledged giving a Quaalude and champagne to a 13-year-old girl he then sodomized.

Talk about dropping a stink bomb. The Polanski letter, which is not directly quoted in L’Express’ article, is said to suggest that the two months the aging director spent in a Swiss prison—in addition to the 47 days that he spent in detention in California in 1977—should suffice for the crime of unlawful sexual intercourse he pled guilty to. (Polanski is now under house arrest at his chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland while authorities seek his extradition to the United States.)

Polanski’s letter also suggests that extraditing the Polish-born filmmaker (who became a French citizen in the 1970s) would do little more than feed the appetite of the American media that he believes just wants to humiliate him.

It is unclear what Polanski or President Sarkozy, for that matter, think Obama might be able or willing to do for a man who has acknowledged giving a Quaalude and champagne to a 13-year-old girl who he then sodomized.

Politically, pre-conviction clemency for Polanski might spark outrage along the lines of the infamous Marc Rich pardon (and it could only be ordered by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger), and personally it is difficult to imagine the American president helping a man who used drugs and alcohol to manipulate a girl who was only a few years older than the Obamas' eldest daughter into sex.

L’Express’ article, by Renaud Revel, is barely more than 100 words in length and it has garnered almost no attention in the French press, where Sarkozy has little desire to be seen as a diplomatic mailman for an aging pedophile, especially to his core conservative supporters who are increasingly unsatisfied with his presidency, both in substance and in style. The French media’s caution is understandable given Sarkozy’s influence over much of France's traditional media; he plays a dominant role in choosing the heads of state-run media, while privately held publications tend to be owned by his friends and supporters.

It is unclear how Polanski's letter actually reached President Sarkozy's hands, but a number of possibilities stand out: Polanski’s wife, the femme fatale actress-turned-pop singer Emmanuelle Seigner, who is a generation younger than he, is a contemporary of supermodel-turned-pop singer-turned-first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

The Polanski-Sarkozy connection may also have been made by Minister of Culture Frédéric Mitterrand, who was initially an extremely vocal Polanski defender. Mitterrand argued that he should be immediately set free after Swiss police grabbed him on his way to receive a lifetime achievement award. Mitterrand largely went silent on the issue after elements from his own past came back to haunt him. (In 2005, he authored a book, The Bad Life, that details, among other things, the narrator’s louche quest for sexual gratification with paid “boys” in Thailand. Scenes from the book—which is slated for release in English this week—were read out of context as part of accusations that Mitterrand was an apologist for pedophilia, or worse. He insisted that “boys” referred to young adults, and he suggested that portions of the book were fictionalized.)

It is also worth noting that President Sarkozy has worked hard on behalf of a wide array of French hostages, convicts and prisoners around the world, and that many French people question the logic of sending a 76-year-old man to prison for a crime dating back more than three decades when the now-adult victim has repeatedly said that everyone, including the prosecutors, needs to move on. Sarkozy himself told the right-wing Le Figaro newspaper late last year, "I understand that people are shocked by the gravity of the accusations against Roman Polanski. But…it is not a good administration of justice to do this 32 years after the facts, when the person concerned is 76 years old."

The frantic Sarkozy, who often conjures up creative solutions when it comes to negotiations, has previously earned the thanks of Polanski’s family for his efforts, particularly after Polanski’s release from prison into chalet-arrest on $4.5 million bail. Soon after, Polanski’s sister-in-law, the actress Mathilde Seigner told Le Parisien newspaper, "The president has been very effective."

This time, however, perhaps not so much.

Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel Shake Girl, which was inspired by one of his articles.  He is based in Paris. Follow him at twitter.com/ericpape