* French public shocked, concerned for country's image
* Scandal grips country, some suspect a set-up
By Alexandria Sage
PARIS, May 15 French voters of all stripes were
shocked on Sunday by news that a man opinion polls had predicted
could be the country's next president had been charged with
sexually assaulting a hotel chambermaid in the United States.
IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York
after a maid alleged he had chased her naked down a hotel
hallway, sexually assaulted her and tried to lock her in a hotel
Strauss-Kahn's wife Anne Sinclair said she did not believe
the accusations for a second and had no doubt he would be proved
innocent. His lawyer said he would plead not guilty.
"It's distressing for France. We have two intellectually and
professionally worthy men, (Jean-Claude) Trichet and him. It's a
pity to ruin a career with sex," said Odile, a painter who lives
near Strauss-Kahn's home in Paris's plush 16th district.
A former finance minister and managing director of the
International Monetary Fund throughout the global economic
crisis, Strauss-Kahn is one of France's highest-profile figures
along with European Central Bank Governor Jean-Claude Trichet.
"His path has been almost regal. He was at the top of the
polls. He was the only one that could take on (President
Nicolas) Sarkozy. I find it bizarre," said Eric Morel, 65, who
also lives nearby.
Strauss-Kahn, 62, has numerous backers in France's political
and business elite who believed his prestigious international
career and erudite image would bring a healthy change after
Sarkozy, criticised by some of being too brash and impulsive.
Instead, his arrest, described by Socialist Party leader
Martine Aubry as a "thunderbolt", removes the toughest rival to
Sarkozy for the April 2012 presidential race and threatens to
stain the coming election campaign. [nLDE74E02I]
"He's definitely crashed off the road as far as the
Socialist primary and the presidency are concerned," Philippe
Martinat, who published a book last year on Strauss-Kahn and
Sarkozy's rivalry, told Reuters television.
The stately Place des Vosges square across town, where the
Strauss-Kahns also have a luxury residence, was abuzz from early
in the morning with talk of the scandal. Residents and
shopkeepers described Strauss-Kahn as a friendly and charismatic
person who frequents local cafes without security guards.
"The only question is: was this a set up?" said neighbour
Bernard Thomas. "I'm staggered. I've always seen the public man,
friendly, discreet and nice in the neighbourhood. For the
Socialist Party it's terrible, it rearranges the cards."
The serious nature of the alleged crime means Strauss-Kahn's
reputation will not be spared by a culture in France of turning
a blind eye to the sexual antics of politicians, as was the case
in 2008 when he emerged apologetic but unscathed from a scandal
over an affair with an economist at the Fund.
Newsstand seller Arnaud Lagrange saw it as the end for
Strauss-Kahn's presidential prospects. "Whether it's true or
not, he's dead."
A Harris opinion poll published in Sunday's edition of Le
Parisien daily, and conducted before the scandal broke, found
that 41 percent of respondents hoped Strauss-Kahn would be the
Socialist candidate, against 25 percent for rival Francois
Hollande and 16 percent for Aubry.
"When I heard the news, I said to myself: oh hell, this has
done for the Socialist Party's image, it's a real blow," said
student Dimitri Castiglioni, 21.
Some bloggers on French news websites speculated that the
scandal, coming as Strauss-Kahn was expected to announce any day
he would make a bid to be the Socialists' election candidate,
could have been a set-up, and some in the street agreed.
"It's a total fix, one year before the presidential
elections," a customer in a cafe in the northern Paris suburb of
Sarcelles, where Strauss-Kahn used to be mayor, told BFM TV.
"He'd have had to be completely mad to have done this."
(Additional reporting by Pauline Mervel; Writing by Catherine
Bremer; editing by Ralph Boulton)