By Elizabeth Pineau and Johnny Cotton
PARIS, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Veteran film director Roman Polanski served as lightning rod and punch line at Friday's Cesar Awards, the biggest night on the French cinema calendar, with protesters highlighting charges of rape against Polanski and the ceremony's host quipping about paedophilia.
Polanski's film "An Officer and a Spy" is in the running for best film and best director, dividing opinion in a country where the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment has struggled to gain traction. The film got a nod early on at the awards, winning best costume designer.
Ahead of the awards French police clashed with protesters outside the Pleyel concert hall and tear gas hung in the air, a Reuters witness said.
Polanski, 86, who fled the United States for France in the late 1970s after admitting raping a 13-year-old girl and faces more recent allegations of sexual assault, has already said he would not attend Friday's ceremony, fearing a "public lynching".
One group of protesters pulled down a barrier outside the Pleyel concert hall, but no protesters made it onto the red carpet before the first guests arrived, a Reuters witness said.
Two activists detained by police chanted: "We're women and proud." Nearby, other protesters peacefully waved placards reading "Shame on an industry that protects rapists."
Polanski denies the latest accusations against him.
Award host Florence Foresti drew light laughter as she sought to lighten the tone, quipping as she ran through the blockbuster films: "'An Officer and a Spy,' paedophilia in the 1970s."
The film's costume designer, Pascaline Chavanne, was not at the event to collect her trophy. The entire cast and production team boycotted the night after the French culture minister earlier said the success of a director accused of sexual violence would send the wrong signal in the #MeToo era.
"It would send a bad message," Culture Minister Franck Riester told franceinfo radio when asked about the prospect of Polanski's scooping best director.
"SPITTING IN FACE OF ALL VICTIMS"
The film chronicles the persecution of French Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus in the 1890s.
Producer Alain Goldman later criticised Riester for making a "damning statement" without knowing the outcome of the secret vote for the Cesar Awards.
"Alas, despite the film's 12 nominations at the 2020 awards, we have witnessed a surge in misplaced and violent comments and actions," Goldman said.
It is the second time in five months that recognition of Polanski, who was expelled last year from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - which bestows the Oscars = has prompted disquiet.
Organisers of the Venice Film Festival drew criticism for including Polanski's work in the programme. It went on to take the festival's Silver Lion Grand Jury in September.
The French awards come in the same week that Harvey Weinstein, once one of Hollywood's most influential producers, was convicted of sexual assault and rape by a New York court.
The verdict marked a victory in the United States for the #MeToo movement that inspired women to publicly accuse powerful men of misconduct. But for many, it has failed to catch hold in France.
"Distinguishing Polanski is spitting in the face of all victims. It means raping women isn't that bad," actress Adele Haenel told the New York Times.
Polanski said he would not attend the ceremony because "activists are already threatening me with a public lynching."
French photographer Valentine Monnier last year accused Polanski of raping her in 1975 when she was an 18-year-old model and actress. Polanski has denied the accusation.
Critics of the #MeToo movement in France say it is puritanical and fuelled by a hated of men.
Ahead of the Cesars, former French film star Brigitte Bardot rallied support for Polanski.
"We should be thankful that Polanski is alive and saving French cinema from mediocrity," Bardot said on Twitter. "I judge him by his talent, not his private life."
(Reporting by Richard Lough and Elizabeth Pineau Editing by Gareth Jones and Leslie Adler)
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