The head of the International Monetary Fund, a man widely tipped to replace Nicolas Sarkozy as the next French president, has been arrested and accused of attempting to rape a 32-year-old chambermaid in his $3,000 suite at a hotel near Times Square in New York.
'Dirty tricks' claim as IMF chief Strauss-Kahn held on sex charge
The worlds of global finance and French high politics were stunned yesterday by the arrest in New York on sex charges of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund and widely tipped to replace Nicolas Sarkozy as the next French president.
Reaction in France, where Mr Strauss-Kahn was seen as best placed to restore the socialists to presidential power in elections a year from now, ranged from anger, shock and disbelief to suspicion that he is the victim of a "dirty tricks" conspiracy to discredit him.
Bernard Debré, a senior figure from Mr Sarkozy's ruling, centre-right UMP party, said on French television that the arrest was a humiliation for both the IMF and France. While acknowledging the presumption of innocence, he added: "It is an affront to the honour of our country."
Mr Strauss-Kahn, 62, is accused of sexually assaulting and attempting to rape a 32-year-old chambermaid in his $3,000 (Dh11,000)-a-night suite at the Sofitel hotel, near Times Square, on Saturday afternoon.
The woman is said to have told investigators he prevented her attempts to flee and that she escaped his attentions by locking herself in the bathroom. She was later treated for minor injuries.
Police say the IMF managing director appears to have fled in panic after the incident, leaving behind personal belongings including his mobile phone. He was taken from his first-class seat on a Paris-bound Air France jet at JFK airport shortly before it departed and held overnight in custody in the Harlem district of New York.
Mr Strauss-Kahn - commonly known in France by his initials DSK - did not respond to questions, according to police, though his lawyers said he denied the accusations. One of his legal representatives, Bernard Brafman, said he would plead not guilty.
There were conflicting reports on how quickly Mr Strauss-Kahn would be brought before court charged with a criminal sexual act, attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment. He is expected to apply for bail.
His wife, Anne Sinclair, a well-known television journalist, said yesterday she did not believe "for one second" the accusations.
"I have no doubt his innocence will be established," she said.
The possibility of "dirty tricks" was raised by the head of France's Christian Democratic party, Christine Boutin, who suggested that, in the pre-election atmosphere, Mr Strauss-Kahn may have been set up.
"I really believe that somebody set a trap for Dominique Strauss-Kahn to fall into," she told French television. "That he could be taken in like that seems astounding, so he must have been trapped."
Martine Aubry, leader of France's Parti Socialiste (PS), for which Mr Strauss-Kahn was expected to stand as presidential contender a year from now, described news of his arrest as a "thunderbolt".
She said she was astounded but called on her party to remain "united and responsible".
The IMF had no immediate comment beyond acknowledging the arrest.
Mr Strauss-Kahn had been scheduled to meet the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, yesterday but that meeting is reported to have been cancelled as news of his arrest spread.
Today, he had further engagements planned, including attending a session of European Union finance ministers in Brussels to discuss the financial bailouts to help the stricken economies of Portugal and Greece.
French government spokesman François Baroin urged caution and said it was important to reserve judgement on the arrest and respect the presumption of innocence. "We have to be extremely prudent in analysis, comments and consequences," he told state-owned France 2 television.
Ségolène Royal, who stood as PS candidate against Mr Sarkozy in 2007, said the news was "staggering". "Everything remains to be verified … let us wait for justice to do its work and not turn this into a political soap opera," she said.
But short of complete exoneration, it is now hard to see how Mr Strauss-Kahn can either maintain his IMF role or proceed, as had been predicted, to declare himself a French presidential candidate.
Despite his wealth and a reported liking for the high life prompting taunts that he was a classic example of the gauche caviar (the French equivalent of champagne socialist), Mr Strauss-Kahn was regarded as the man most capable of gaining presidential power for the socialists for the first time since François Mitterrand's 14 years in office ended in 1995.
A string of opinion polls gave him a good chance of beating Mr Sarkozy, or the far right Front National leader Martine Le Pen, in the event of Mr Sarkozy's elimination in the first round next April.
Ms Le Pen said he was now "totally discredited" as a presidential contender. Speaking on French radio, she also claimed Parisian political and media circles had been buzzing for some months with rumours about Mr Strauss-Kahn's private life.
However, she produced no details and supporters insisted that the details reported from New York did not correspond to the character of the man they knew.
Mr Strauss-Kahn was born in Paris, attended the elite Institute for Political Studies and served as finance minister in the late 1990s. He sought the PS nomination for the 2007 presidential elections but was heavily defeated by Ms Royal, who ended up being beaten comfortably by Mr Sarkozy.
He was appointed managing director of the IMF, with Mr Sarkozy's endorsement, after the election.
Paul Browne, a New York Police Department spokesman, confirmed that the allegations against Mr Strauss-Kahn had been made by a woman who worked at the hotel.
Mr Browne said: "We received a call that a chambermaid in a hotel in midtown Manhattan had been sexually assaulted by the occupant of a luxury suite at that hotel, and that that individual had fled. The maid described being forcibly attacked, locked in the room and sexually assaulted.
"She told detectives he came out of the bathroom naked, ran down a hallway to the foyer where she was, pulled her into a bedroom and began to sexually assault her, according to her account.
"She pulled away from him and he dragged her down a hallway into the bathroom where he engaged in a criminal sexual act, according to her account to detectives. He tried to lock her into the hotel room."
Mr Browne said Mr Strauss-Kahn then made his way to the airport.
"It looked like he got out of there in a hurry," said Mr Browne. "Had officers been 10 minutes later in requesting his detention, he would have been in the air and on his way to France."
In 2008, Mr Strauss-Kahn was investigated by the IMF board over a relationship with a female member of staff. It found the relationship had been consensual and Mr Stauss-Kahn issued apologies to staff and his wife for his "serious error of judgment".
In recent weeks, photographs appeared in a French newspaper, Le Parisien, showing him and his wife stepping into a €100,000 (Dh518,000) Porsche outside their luxury penthouse.
Mr Strauss-Kahn was mocked by opponents and some commentators.There were signs, however, that it might have come to be seen as little more than a media event. The car belonged to a friend, Ramzi Khiroun, spokesman for the major French media group Lagardère.
* With additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse