* 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 room. [nN15215355]
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)