French government breaks silence on DSK sex arrest

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France's government broke its silence Tuesday on the attempted rape charges against French IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, for the first time raising the possibility of his guilt.

As opposition Socialists lambasted the media and US justice, accusing New York authorities of needlessly humiliating their fallen champion, President Nicolas Sarkozy's camp reacted with grave caution.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon spoke on France's first major political sex crime scandal, saying that Strauss-Kahn had the right to be presumed innocent, but that if he is found guilty he would have "no excuse".

Sarkozy's supporters were striving to avoid being seen to score political points over his rival's dramatic fall from grace, however, with Fillon warning: "No one must exploit this affair."

Without mentioning Strauss-Kahn's name, Sarkozy told lawmakers that "level-headedness, courage, unity and dignity is the way of the majority," according to a senior source in his ruling centre-right UMP party.

Meanwhile the Socialists held crisis talks after Strauss-Kahn's arrest in New York on charges of trying to rape a hotel maid, which snuffed out their best hope of beating Sarkozy in next year's presidential election.

"We will be there in 2012," Socialist leader Martine Aubry told reporters after the meeting of senior party leaders.

"At this time we must be more ourselves, more united, than ever... We must hold our course and do it together."

She called the scandal "a painful moment for one of us, and for us all" and called for respect for the alleged victim. But she gave no clue to any strategic moves after the scandal that has rocked French politics.

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 in New York, his presidential hopes in tatters.

"We have a schedule and I think that is not the issue of the moment," Aubry told France Info radio.

"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 ahead of the primary placed Strauss-Kahn ahead of Aubry as well as 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.

Fillon told a closed-door meeting of lawmakers: "If the deeds of which Dominique Strauss-Kahn is accused are verified, we would be faced with a very serious act for which there is no excuse," according to participants.

"This is a matter of common law, not an affair of state," he added.

With Sarkozy's popularity rating languishing at less than a third for months, it seemed he could only benefit from a Socialist scandal. He presides the Group of Eight summit in France next week.

Compared to the unsavoury charges against Strauss-Kahn, Sarkozy could be left looking like a family man, not least now that his wife Carla Bruni is reportedly 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. Publishing such photos of suspects is banned in France

"American justice has its own rules," Aubry told reporters. "We have only heard the accusation. We are waiting to hear the other voice, that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his lawyers."

His lawyers have said he will deny all the charges and plead not guilty.

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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