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PARIS (Reuters) - IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, facing sexual assault charges in New York, was the front-runner in the latest opinion polls to win next year's presidential election in France and replace incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.
The 62-year-old Socialist, who served as French finance minister in the late 1990s, left for Washington in late 2007 to head the International Monetary Fund, just as the global economy was hit by the worst downturn since World War Two.
The polls have consistently shown Strauss-Kahn, who has yet to officially declare his candidacy, trouncing Sarkozy and leading all other potential challengers in the presidential election next April and May.
That was until the shock news of his arrest in New York over an alleged sexual assault on a hotel maid. Prosecutors charged him on Sunday with a criminal sexual act, attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment. Strauss-Kahn's lawyer said he would plead not guilty.
No stranger to controversy, Strauss-Kahn was investigated by the IMF in 2008 over possible abuse of power involving a brief affair with an economist at the Fund. He was cleared of abusing power and apologized publicly for "a serious error of judgment."
News of his arrest at New York's JFK airport could hardly have come at a more critical moment.
France's Socialist Party, the main opposition party, holds a "primary" contest to pick a runner for the presidential race and candidates have to register soon. Strauss-Kahn was widely expected to declare his intentions by late June.
He lost a similar primary selection test in 2006 to Segolene Royal in a disappointing performance that prompted the U.S. ambassador at the time to say Strauss-Kahn lacked the "fire in the belly" it takes to wage a presidential campaign.
Sarkozy won the ensuing 2007 election and is expected to seek a second term, though polls have shown him lagging behind Strauss-Kahn and struggling with a public image as a brittle, defensive personality the French find it hard to warm to.
Brought up in a secular and liberal Jewish household in Morocco and Monaco, Strauss-Kahn launched into an academic career before entering politics. Suave and multilingual, witty and self-confident, he built a reputation as a formidable public orator and a charming negotiator in private.
Like Sarkozy, he has been married three times, the first time to his high-school sweetheart at the age of 18.
To some Frenchmen of an older generation, Strauss-Kahn's third and current wife, Anne Sinclair, is arguably the bigger celebrity, despite having long ago swapped her job as the most-watched interviewer on French current affairs TV for the role of loyal spouse, and part-time blogger.
Sinclair, who married Strauss-Kahn when he was an industry minister in 1991 under the late Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, is granddaughter and heiress of one of France's biggest art dealers, and was born in New York where her father fled the war-time Nazi persecution of Jews.
When he had to make a public apology over the affair at the IMF, Sinclair stuck by his side in a way that prompted comparisons to Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state and wife of former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
French voters are tolerant of their leaders' sex lives and their media tend to avoid the issue as a matter of principle. A child Mitterrand fathered outside his marriage was unknown to most people until she turned up at his funeral.
Far from French shores, Strauss-Kahn, the globe-trotting IMF boss, has carefully nurtured his left-wing credentials and built up a contact book that would put many a statesman to shame. He has also found plenty of time to visit his home country as well as a house in Marrakesh, Morocco, where his family and friends regularly reunite.
When the global economic crisis struck at the end of 2007, Strauss-Kahn likes to let it be known he was the first to say world leaders would have to throw trillions of dollars into the pot to fight off depression.
That amounted to a small revolution for many at the IMF, hated in many countries like Argentina for ordering stringent austerity programs in return for its rescue loans.
In France, Strauss-Kahn was the architect of the economic policy that helped sweep the Socialists to power in 1997 and won him the job of finance minister. He is an economist by training and at one stage in the 1970s looked destined for a career as a major academic player in the field.
As finance minister, helped by an economic boom, he won praise for helping France qualify for the euro currency and launching a massive state-funded program to create 350,000 jobs. He claimed ownership of the shift to a 35-hour working week -- but left the fraught implementation to someone else.
His stint as head of a powerful finance, industry and budget ministry was cut short abruptly when he resigned in late 1999 over a Socialist Party funding scandal. He was later acquitted.
Years on, luck was on his side. He left French shores in November 2007 with a mandate to cut costs at an IMF whose role was widely seen as fading. Just as he got there, the great global recession gave the rescue-lending agency, and Strauss-Kahn, a new lease of life.
Editing by Mark Trevelyan