PARIS (AP) — Filmmaker Roman Polanski has abandoned plans to preside over the French equivalent of the Oscars, after protests from France's women's rights minister and feminist groups prompted by decades-old U.S. sex charges against him.
It's a surprising setback for the 83-year-old director, a Holocaust survivor who is widely respected in France and whose film career has continued to flourish since he settled in Paris after fleeing the U.S. in the late 1970s.
"Deeply saddened" by the renewed criticism, Polanski decided not to lead the Feb. 24 Cesars Awards "so as not to disrupt the Cesars ceremony, which should be devoted to cinema and not to the designation of its president," according to a statement from Polanski's lawyer Herve Temime.
The arts academy holding the Cesars Awards is discussing alternative options after Polanski's decision, an academy official said Tuesday.
Academy president Alain Terzian, in initially inviting Polanski, hailed him as an "insatiable esthete reinventing his art and works over the years."
Women's minister Laurence Rossignol called the move "shocking." Activist groups called for protests outside the ceremony, with an online campaign accusing Polanski of being a "criminal who drugged and raped a 13-year-old child and escaped justice."
Polanski pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl during a photo shoot in Los Angeles in 1977, but then fled the United States before final sentencing. He is still wanted by American judicial authorities, and is subject to an Interpol notice in 188 countries.
Longtime Polanski friend Thierry Fremaux, director of the Cannes Film Festival, said on RTL radio Tuesday that the filmmaker is "devastated" by the criticism in France.
It comes after recent allegations by a French radio presenter and other women that a prominent photographer sexually abused them as teens, a case that revived concerns in France about impunity for celebrity behavior.
Polanski has won eight Cesars over his career, and won the 2003 best director Oscar for "The Pianist." However, he couldn't travel to Los Angeles to pick up that award.
He travels only to three countries to avoid extradition: France and Switzerland, where he has homes, and Poland, where he was born and survived World War II.
Polanski's lawyer noted that Poland and Switzerland have rebuffed U.S. efforts in recent years to extradite him, and that the woman he assaulted, Samantha Geimer, has called for the U.S. case against him to be dropped.
"This scandal has surfaced in a totally unjustified way," the lawyer's statement said.