Allegations against poll topper rip presidential race apart
Allegations of sexual assault in a New York hotel have torn France's presidential race asunder and savaged the reputation of the suave and self-assured Dominique Strauss-Kahn, chief of the International Monetary Fund.
Mr Strauss-Kahn (62) has topped French opinion polls for months as the man most likely to become this nation's next president, consistently outshining the little-loved conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.
But yesterday, his allies and rivals alike struggled with shock at news that Mr Strauss-Kahn had been hauled off an Air France flight minutes before takeoff, to face a charge of attempted rape.
In cafes and outdoor markets, French voters shared that disbelief. For some, it spells the end of the prominent Socialist's presidential ambitions and even his political career.
Others cautioned that it was too early to judge a man who denies wrongdoing. Still others sniffed a plot to blacken his name just as France's presidential campaign heats up for the April 2012 first-round vote.
Among those inclined to believe DSK, as he is known, is his third wife, the television presenter Anne Sinclair, who said she didn't believe the allegations "for a single second".
"I have no doubt his innocence will be established," she added.
Henri de Raincourt, Mr Sarkozy's minister for overseas co-operation, said he could not rule out that Mr Strauss-Kahn's arrest was the result of a set-up with political motives.
"We cannot rule out the thought of a trap," Mr De Raincourt said. "I refuse to have a personal opinion and say, 'Yes it was a trap,' or 'No, it wasn't a trap.' I don't know," he said.
But others were adamant he had disgracefully succumbed to what all French knew to be his Achilles heel.
Jacques Attali, a former Socialist presidential adviser, conceded his presidential hopes were now dashed.
"He cannot be a candidate for (Socialist) primaries, nor even (keep his post) at the IMF," he said.
His likely withdrawal could strengthen the hand of the National Front, the far-right party led by Marine Le Pen.
"He's definitely discredited," Ms Le Pen said. "The case and the charges mark the end of his campaign for the presidency, and will likely prompt the IMF to ask him to leave his post."
Socialist party leaders urged the French to withhold judg-ment until more facts emerged.
"Anything is possible," said Segolene Royal, a former presidential candidate.
Martine Aubry, the Socialist Party leader, described the arrest as a "thunderbolt" that left her "astounded".
"I call on the Socialists to stay united and reasonable," she said.
Michelle Sabban, a Socialist DSK ally, said she was convinced he was the victim of an international plot.
"It's the IMF they wanted to decapitate, not the candidate. He's the most powerful man after (US President Barack) Obama. This is a new form of political (terrorist) attack."
Just hours before the scandal erupted, a poll put Mr Strauss-Kahn favourite to represent the Socialists.
"It doesn't spell the end for a politician, it spells the end for a man, period. And that is dramatic," said former Adidas owner and prominent French businessman Bernard Tapie.
All options point to disarray on France's political landscape for a while to come.
Mr Strauss-Kahn's absence from the fray could leave more room for the resurgent far right, or hand a lift to Socialist rival Francois Hollande or even to Mr Sarkozy himself.
The arrest also marks a striking fall from grace for a man who built up a formidable reputation as a problem-solver and sharp negotiator as IMF chief during the global financial crisis.
That reputation had reflected well on France and many French voters were hoping he could bring it home with him next year.