LILLE, France (Reuters) - Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was questioned by police on Tuesday over his dealings with an alleged prostitution ring that was run from the northern French city of Lille and organized sex parties in Paris, Brussels and Washington.
Strauss-Kahn, a former finance minister seen as a strong contender for France's 2012 presidential election until a sexual assault case in New York last May brought his ambitions to an abrupt halt, was to remain in police custody overnight and could be held until Thursday morning.
The investigation is focused on a prostitution ring that allegedly supplied clients of Lille's luxury Carlton hotel. Police want to establish whether Strauss-Kahn knew that women at parties he attended in Paris and Washington were prostitutes.
He could be deemed free of suspicion, or may be placed under formal investigation for benefitting from misappropriated company funds if investigators conclude that he attended sex sessions with prostitutes that company executives used expense accounts to pay for.
Either way, he could face an uncomfortably timed release from custody on Thursday, with President Nicolas Sarkozy, who he once dreamed of ousting from power, due to arrive in Lille that day for a pre-planned election campaign visit.
Strauss-Kahn made no comment to a crush of reporters and photographers as he arrived by car for questioning early on Tuesday at Lille police station.
Strauss-Kahn, 62, quit his International Monetary Fund post after he was accused last May of trying to rape a New York chambermaid, although criminal charges were later dropped.
Linked later to the Lille affair, Strauss-Kahn asked to speak to police about the case.
Strauss-Kahn's lawyer Henri Leclerc has said his client had no reason to think the women were prostitutes.
"People are not always clothed at these parties. I challenge you to tell the difference between a nude prostitute and a classy lady in the nude," Leclerc told French radio in December.
LIVING IN THE SHADOWS
Eight people, including two Lille businessmen close to Strauss-Kahn and a police commissioner, have been arrested in the case, and construction firm Eiffage fired an executive suspected of using company funds to hire sex workers.
Using prostitutes is not illegal in France, but Strauss-Kahn risks being charged if investigators decide he knowingly had sex with prostitutes paid for out of company funds.
Belgian pimp Dominique Alderweireld, who often appears in French media under his nickname "Dodo la Saumure", told Europe 1 radio on Tuesday that Strauss-Kahn might not have given much thought to who, if anyone, had paid the women at the parties.
"It wasn't his problem. All he was interested in was having sex. That's it," he said.
Strauss-Kahn is quoted in a biography by Michel Taubmann published last year that he had taken part in "libertine soirees" but was disgusted by the idea of prostitutes and pimping. "It's not my thing," he said.
"Usually, people at these soirees are not prostitutes," Strauss-Kahn is quoted as saying. "When somebody introduces you to his girlfriend, you don't ask him if she's a prostitute."
While his wife Anne Sinclair has revived her career as a journalist with a new job as news editor at an upcoming French-language version of the Huffington Post, Strauss-Kahn has gone from a life at the heart of France's intellectual and social elite to living largely in the shadows.
Photographed occasionally out and about in Paris, recently in a scruffy dark grey anorak, he is starting to make a comeback on the international speech circuit but is otherwise rarely seen on the social circuit.
He is often parodied on "Les Guignols", a television program that uses puppets to satirize politicians, portrayed as a skirt-chaser always wearing a leopard-print bathrobe.
Attempted-rape accusations brought against Strauss-Kahn last year by a Parisian writer were shelved by police in October.
The New York maid is pursuing a civil action against him.