French Socialists reel from DSK sex arrest

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France's opposition Socialists scrambled to regroup Tuesday after French politics was rocked by the arrest on attempted rape charges of their top presidential hope, IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

With Strauss-Kahn, the man who had polled as most likely to beat President Nicolas Sarkozy in next year's presidential election, in a New York jail, the Socialists' leader Martine Aubry called crisis talks in Paris.

"Do not worry. Whatever happens, we will be there in 2012," Aubry told Socialist lawmakers at their weekly gathering in parliament. She was due to hold a meeting of the party later on Tuesday.

Strauss-Kahn had not formally announced a bid for the party's nomination, to be decided at a primary in October, but he had strongly hinted he would run and had a deal with Aubry that the two would not run against each other.

On Tuesday she said it was too soon to say whether she would step up and seek the party's nomination now that Strauss-Kahn is incarcerated on Rikers Island, his presidential hopes in tatters.

"We have a schedule and I think it is not the issue of the moment. I am staying the course," she told France Info radio, referring to the party's timetable of shortlisting candidates in June and choosing one in October.

"What is happening today with Dominique is extremely serious but nothing can justify changing now what we have to do," Aubry said. "I have one sole duty, to make sure that one of us wins in 2012."

Several electoral opinion polls had placed Strauss-Kahn ahead of Aubry, the Socialists' former leader Francois Hollande and their 2007 presidential candidate Segolene Royal.

Analysts say Aubry and Hollande will likely go head to head for the nomination, while the scandal could shift some support to minority centre-right candidates.

"It is going to be Martine Aubry versus Francois Hollande for the candidacy," said one influential left-winger, Jacques Attali, shortly after the news of the arrest.

Sarkozy himself was silent on the affair, but with his popularity rating languishing at less than a third for months, it seemed he could only benefit from a Socialist scandal.

Compared to the unsavoury charges against Strauss-Kahn, Sarkozy could be left looking squeaky-clean, not least now that the father of his wife Carla Bruni has reportedly confirmed she is pregnant with the president's child.

The Socialists have held the presidency only once since World War II and not since the term of Francois Mitterrand in the 1990s.

They vented outrage at the Americans' treatment of Strauss-Kahn, filmed being led in handcuffs and standing in court, haggard and unshaven after a night in jail. Aubry in Monday called the handcuffing "humiliating."

"American justice functions purely by prosecuting and leaves very little room for the defence," Socialist former justice minister Elizabeth Guigo told Europe 1 radio. "We in France should be wary of that."

Another Socialist, former minister Robert Badinter, complained that Strauss-Kahn was being put to "death by media."

Claims about Strauss-Kahn's conduct towards women had long circulated in French media and political circles but the media had rarely addressed them until the scandal erupted with his arrest at the weekend.

© 2011 AFP

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