Strauss-Kahn arrest upends French politics ahead of presidential race

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, arrested in New York on sexual-assault charges, was considered a strong contender to become France's next president. Now his candidacy for the Socialist party is in serious doubt.

By , Correspondent

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    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, is led from a police station Sunday, May 15, in New York, where he was being held. The arraignment for Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who is accused of sexually assaulting a New York hotel maid, is scheduled to be held Monday.
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Dominique Strauss-Kahn, director of the International Monetary Fund, is missing a lot of important events these days. He missed a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday, and he won’t attend the get-together of EU finance ministers in Brussels today. But much more important, in all likelihood, Mr. Strauss-Kahn has missed the chance to become France’s next president.

Before the NYPD arrested him on Saturday at JFK airport on sexual assault charges brought by a Manhattan hotel maid, French Socialist Strauss-Kahn was widely expected to soon declare his intention to run for president in the 2012 elections. Now France’s political class, most of all the Socialist Party (PS), is trying to gauge the consequences of his arrest.

Strauss-Kahn is to appear in court today in New York, where he is expected to plead not guilty.

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"The news from New York sounds like a thunderbolt,“ said Socialist leader Martine Aubry. “I myself, like everyone, am totally astounded. I ask the Socialists to remain united and responsible."

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Unity has not been the French Socialists’ foremost feature. The infighting between leading party figures played a big part in their defeat in the 2007 presidential elections. Strauss-Kahn, or DSK as the former finance minister is known in France, had a good chance to change this; latest opinion polls had given him a clear lead on the incumbent, President Nicolas Sarkozy. Now the turbulent times could be back, with both Martine Aubry and former party leader François Hollande as likely Socialist contenders for the presidency.

Mr. Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party has been keen not to be too gleeful about the news from New York. Trade minister Pierre Lellouche stressed that Strauss-Kahn should be granted the benefit of the doubt.

“It's an accusatory system in the United States, so what I would say is that we should be very careful on the presumption of innocence and hope that nothing damning comes out of this,” Mr. Lellouche said.

The far-right National Front was less tactful. “This case marks the end of his campaign and will most likely prompt the IMF to ask him to leave his post,” said party leader Marine Le Pen, herself a 2012 presidential candidate.

Famous French tolerance?

French voters are famously tolerant when it comes to politicians’ private lives. Late President François Mitterand had a whole second family, and Strauss-Kahn, married three times like Sarkozy, escaped unhurt after he apologized for an affair with a Hungarian IMF colleague in 2008 and called it an “error of judgment.”

His jet-set lifestyle may have irked the party left: just recently, pictures of him getting into his PR manager’s Porsche gave new strength to his reputation as being part of “la gauche caviar,” or "the caviar left" whose lifestyle is not that of the masses.

But he is widely respected for his work: As finance minister in the 1990s, he even convinced the communists of the necessity to privatize large parts of France’s state-owned assets and helped qualify the country for the euro currency, and as director of the IMF he turned into the firefighter of the world economy.

All this may be of little use now. DSK’s political career is in ruins, even if he is found innocent – and his lawyers already said he would plead not guilty.

Claude Askolovitch, political commentator and author of a forthcoming book about Strauss-Kahn, is skeptical about his chances of survival.

“It takes a miracle,” Mr. Askolovitch told the Monitor. “If there is no indictment, if they prove he was framed and they let him go within a couple of weeks, he will be elected president of France next year. But nobody really believes this will happen. If a shadow of doubt remains, he is done.”

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