PARIS Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest on sexual assault charges removes the toughest rival to French President Nicolas Sarkozy for the 2012 presidential race, bumping up his chances of re-election to a second term.
News of the charges against the IMF chief for assaulting a New York hotel maid shocked the world on Sunday, and unless the case unravels fast and shows him to be innocent, few can imagine a disgraced Strauss-Kahn running as the left-wing challenger.
The former finance minister will plead not guilty to charges of carrying out a criminal sexual act, attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment. French officials say he must be presumed innocent unless proven guilty.
But even if he is ultimately cleared, the case -- and the sordid publicity it will bring -- could easily run on well beyond the Socialist Party's autumn selection contest.
The charges of serious crimes mean Strauss-Kahn's reputation will not be spared by the French culture of ignoring the sexual behavior of politicians, as it was in 2008 when he emerged unscathed from a scandal over an affair with an IMF economist.
"It's too early to know what happened, but if things are confirmed then this is way beyond what we tolerate in France," said Paul Bacot, a political affairs professor at Sciences Po university in Lyon. "It's unbearable, for everybody."
French politicians were shocked. Socialist leader Martine Aubry called the news a "thunderbolt." Francois Bayrou, a centrist opponent of Strauss-Kahn, said: "If the facts prove true ... it's something degrading for all women. It's terrible for the image of France."
BOON FOR SARKOZY
Removal of the man opinion polls rank as front-runner in the April 2012 race would be a boon for Sarkozy, who is stuck with rock-bottom poll ratings. Other potential Socialist challengers to Sarkozy, such as Aubry and veteran deputy Francois Hollande, have much less weighty profiles.
The scandal could also help far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who likes to paint herself as a woman of the people in contrast to an elitist political boys' club.
"This has turned the campaign completely upside down. It changes the stakes for everyone," said political analyst Jean-Thomas Lesueur at the Institut Thomas More think tank.
"(For Strauss-Kahn) it's finished. It's an axe that's come down on his campaign. It's incredible."
Strauss-Kahn -- managing director since 2007 of the International Monetary Fund and a key player in managing the global economic crisis -- had been seen as close to announcing his candidacy for the Socialists. French business and political circles had viewed him as impeccably qualified.
That was until police pulled him off a Paris-bound plane on the tarmac at New York's John F Kennedy airport on Saturday. They charged him over a complaint by a 32-year-old maid that he chased her naked down a hotel hallway, sexually assaulted her and tried to lock her in a hotel room.
ELECTION RACE IN FLUX
For Sarkozy, who is expected to confirm late in 2011 that he will run for reelection, the affair means a rethink of a campaign that would have focused on beating Le Pen in the first round and Strauss-Kahn in the second.
"This will change the cards. There is no other Socialist candidate to match Strauss-Kahn, so if the runoff is right versus left, Sarkozy's experience will give him more of an advantage than before," said Lesueur.
"It will mean a miserable atmosphere for the campaign, but lots of people could benefit. For Sarkozy, it's a big adversary that disappears and for Le Pen, it gives her a window to say that all men in politics are rotten."
An IFOP survey carried out over May 10-12 and published in Sunday's Journal du Dimanche newspaper found that Strauss-Kahn would have led a presidential first round with 26 percent of the vote, with Le Pen at 22 percent and Sarkozy at 21.5 percent.
If Hollande were the left's candidate instead of Strauss-Kahn, it would be a dead heat.
"Today the 2012 election is in complete flux," said Dominique Paille of the centrist Radical Party. "Everybody thought Strauss-Kahn would run off with it and all it takes is one event for the house of cards to fall."
Sarkozy had yet to react to the news on Sunday, and analysts expect he will say very little about the charges against a man he himself put forward to head the IMF. Government spokesman Francois Baroin said it was important to stay cautious.
Le Pen was quick to comment, saying the case "marked the end" of Strauss-Kahn's presidential ambitions, while Aubry called on the Socialist Party to stand united and respect the presumption of innocence. Hollande said the "terrible news" did not fit with the man he knew.
Analysts expect Hollande to now emerge as the Socialist Party favorite, but he could suffer in the election contest for his weak resume, having never been a government minister.
Aubry has more clout in France, as her party's first female leader, the architect of the 35-hour work week and the daughter of former European Commission president Jacques Delors, but she may struggle to give the impression of having fresh ideas.
"At the moment, the person who would benefit the most from this situation on face value, but not necessarily in terms of popularity, is Francois Hollande," said political analyst Stephane Rozes. "Martine Aubry will have to keep the house in order in this turbulent period."
Analysts now expect Aubry will move relatively fast to announce her candidacy and put a new face on the left-wing bid, in competition with Hollande and Segolene Royal, his former partner who is also in the running.
(Editing by Peter Graff)