PARIS (AFP) - The "French Oscars" Cesars ceremony began late on Friday (Feb 28) in a poisonous atmosphere with Roman Polanski - whose new film has the highest number of nominations - staying away from the ceremony because he fears a "public lynching".
Protesters chanting "Lock up Polanski!" tried to storm the Paris theatre at which the ceremony was being held only to be pushed back by riot police.
Hours earlier France's Culture Minister Franck Riester said giving Polanski the best director prize for An Officer And A Spy would be "symbolically bad given the stance we must take against sexual and sexist violence".
With the French film industry at war with itself over honouring the controversial director - wanted in the United States for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1977 - Hollywood star Brad Pitt also snubbed the event having reportedly been offered an honorary Cesar.
French star Adele Haenel, who is nominated for best actress for Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, set the tone by lambasting the Cesar academy earlier this week for showering so many nominations on Polanski's drama about the Dreyfus affair in France at the turn of the 20th century .
"Distinguishing Polanski is spitting in the face of all victims," said the actress, who shook the industry last year by accusing the director of her first film, Christophe Ruggia, of sexually harassing her when she was only 12.
"It means raping women isn't that bad," she added.
In the furore that followed Polanski's 12 nominations, the entire board of the Cesars was forced to resign.
Polanski told AFP that he would stay away because "what place can there be in such deplorable conditions for a film about the defence of truth, the fight for justice, blind hate and anti-Semitism?"
His producer Alain Goldman said on Friday that the film's entire team including its Oscar-winning star Jean Dujardin would also be boycotting the ceremony to show their outrage at the way Polanski had been "condemned in advance".
To make matters worse, on the eve of the awards, 30 cinema figures from minority backgrounds lashed the lip service they claimed the industry plays to inclusion in an open letter, saying black, North African and Asian-origin performers are mostly confined to stereotypical bit parts in French films.
The French press had billed the ceremony as the most dramatic and divisive ever, with Le Figaro daily billing it as "The Cesars of Anguish" and Le Parisien mocking up a movie poster for Hitchcock's "Vertigo".
And it lived up to its billing, with one of the signatories of the letter, actress Aissa Maiga delivering a scathing critique of casual racism in the industry as she presented the prize for best newcomer, including skewering presenter Florence Foresti for once donning blackface.
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All eyes were also be on Haenel and her former partner Celine Sciamma, who directed the feminist ode Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, which is up against Polanski's historical epic and Les Miserables by Mali-born Oscar-nominated director Ladj Ly for best film.
The publicity campaign for Polanski's movie was halted last year after another woman, photographer Valentine Monnier, claimed that she had also been raped by the director in 1975.
The 87-year-old Polanski told AFP he was staying away to protect his family and his team from abuse.
"The activists brandish the figure of 12 women who I am supposed to have molested half a century ago," he said.
"These fantasies of sick minds are treated as established fact, he complained.