Arrest wrecks Strauss-Kahn French presidency hopes

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IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest on sexual assault charges looked Sunday to have destroyed his high hopes of beating Nicolas Sarkozy in France's 2012 presidential election.

Strauss-Kahn had polled as the brightest hope for France's opposition Socialist party, which reacted with shock on Sunday. Its leader Martine Aubry called the news a "thunderbolt."

Polls had placed Strauss-Kahn as French voters' favourite potential candidate for the election, ahead of fellow Socialists and Sarkozy, whose approval ratings have plunged during his time in power.

Strauss-Kahn was widely expected to announce a bid and sniping by political rivals was in full swing, with opponents sneering at his jetset lifestyle, on top of long-standing claims about his dalliances with women.

But no verbal mudslinging 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.

"The news coming tonight from New York sounds like a thunderbolt. I myself, like everyone, am totally astounded," Aubry said in Lille, where she is mayor.

"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 and how the Socialists might regroup ahead of their primary to choose a candidate in October.

"It is staggering news, about which everything remains to be verified," the Socialists' 2007 presidential candidate, Segolene 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 and politicians on left and right declared his hopes dead, however.

A key rival electoral challenger, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who polls show could win the first round of the vote, seized on the news.

She told RTL radio Sunday that Strauss-Kahn was "definitively discredited as a candidate for the highest state office."

Previously the worst of Strauss-Kahn's worries was the sniggering over a photograph of him getting in a Porsche car, judged too posh for a left-winger.

Several electoral opinion polls had placed him ahead of Aubry, the Socialists' former leader Francois Hollande, and far ahead of Royal.

But the dramatic arrest on Saturday -- with New York police hauling Strauss-Kahn off an Air France flight minutes before it took off -- turned the opposition's prospects for the election on their head.

Pundits were convinced the presidency is now out of his reach.

"It is sure that he will not be a left-wing candidate for the presidential election," said political commentator Jean-Francois Kahn on Europe 1.

There was no word from Sarkozy's camp, but with the president's approval ratings stuck at around a third it seemed his prospects could only benefit from a Socialist scandal.

Influential left-winger Jacques Attali said Strauss-Kahn could not run for president "unless it were discovered there had been a set-up in this affair," nor continue as managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

"It is going to be Martine Aubry versus Francois Hollande for the candidacy," Attali added. "The president is far from beaten."

© 2011 AFP

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