IMF chief's arrest rocks French presidency race
IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest on sex charges looks to have wrecked his hope of beating Nicolas Sarkozy to the French presidency and turned the race on its head, amid whisperings of dirty tricks.
Strauss-Kahn had polled as the brightest hope for France's opposition Socialists for the 2012 election, well ahead of Sarkozy, but his arrest threw the race into uncertainty which could play well for the flagging president.
Socialist leader Martine Aubry called the news a "thunderbolt", while one French government minister refused to rule out rumours that the scandal was the result of a political dirty tricks.
Strauss-Kahn, known as DSK, was widely expected to run for his party's nomination and sniping by political rivals was growing in an election fight that risked getting dirtier.
Opponents sneer at his jet-set lifestyle, while in the background lurk long-standing claims about Strauss-Kahn's conduct in private with women, little covered by the French media which rarely probe into politicians' private lives.
But no amount of mudslinging or whispered rumours could do as much harm as his shock arrest on Saturday, on charges of trying to rape a maid in a New York hotel room. His lawyers said he would deny all charges and plead not guilty.
"The news last night from New York sounds like a thunderbolt. I myself, like everyone, am totally astounded," Aubry said. "I ask the Socialists to remain united and responsible."
She would not yet comment on how the presidential race might reshape itself if Strauss-Kahn is taken out of the running, with the Socialists due to choose their candidate at a primary in October.
There was no word from Sarkozy's office Sunday but the cabinet spokesman, Budget Minister Francois Baroin, said the government respected Strauss-Kahn's right to be presumed innocent.
Henri de Raincourt, minister for overseas cooperation in President Nicolas Sarkozy's government, was the first senior official to openly broach rumours of a politically motivated set-up.
"We cannot rule out the thought of a trap," he said in a broadcast interview. "I am not ruling anything out."
With Sarkozy's approval ratings stuck at around a third it seemed his prospects could only benefit from a Socialist scandal.
Amid the unsavoury charges against Strauss-Kahn, Sarkozy could be left looking squeaky-clean by comparison, not least if his former supermodel wife Carla Bruni confirms widespread rumours that she is pregnant with his child.
Strauss-Kahn's wife, the well-known television journalist Anne Sinclair, said she does not "for one second" believe the accusations against her husband.
"I have no doubt his innocence will be established," she said in a statement.
Allies of Strauss-Kahn also defended him. One, Michelle Sabban, a senior councillor for the greater Paris region, alleged the scandal was an "international conspiracy" to disrupt the IMF.
Several electoral opinion polls had placed Strauss-Kahn ahead of Aubry, the Socialists' former leader Francois Hollande, and their 2007 presidential candidate Segolene Royal.
But the dramatic arrest on Saturday -- with New York police hauling Strauss-Kahn off an Air France plane minutes before it took off -- left the party in disarray.
"It is staggering news," Royal, who is also running in 2012, told Europe 1 radio.
"Let us wait for justice to do its work and not turn this into a political soap opera," she added. "The time has not yet come to comment on the consequences of this affair for domestic politics."
Pundits did just that, however, convinced the presidency is now out of Strauss-Kahn's reach.
"It is absolutely impossible for him to get back in the race," said the political scientist Stephane Rozes.
Raincourt said the whole country's reputation risks suffering from Strauss-Kahn's arrest.
Another electoral challenger, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who polls show could win the first round of the vote, seized on the scandal, saying Strauss-Kahn was "definitively discredited as a candidate".
Influential left-winger Jacques Attali said Strauss-Kahn could not run for president "unless it were discovered there has been a set-up in this affair", nor keep his post at the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
"It is going to be Martine Aubry versus Francois Hollande for the candidacy," Attali said. "The president is far from beaten."
© 2011 AFP