PARIS (Reuters) - IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest on sexual assault charges, weeks before he was expected to announce a presidential bid, looks set to scar France’s political landscape and remold its coming election campaign.
While Strauss-Kahn — a Socialist viewed until now as the strongest contender for France’s 2012 election — sat in a cell in New York, talk raged in his home country of whether he is guilty, how bad the fallout will be, and even whether he might have been set up.
“This is the end of his political career, and for France, it’s a moment of proof that will be hard to move past,” said Dominique Paille of the centrist Radical Party, summing up much of the reaction to the weekend scandal.
Strauss-Kahn was expected to plead not guilty in a New York state court of charges that he tried to rape a chambermaid at an New York City hotel after chasing her, naked, down a corridor and trying to lock her in a room.
President Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right government, which now stands a better chance of holding onto power in 2012, warned against rushing to conclusions in the case.
National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who likes to paint herself as a woman of the people struggling against an old boys’ political elite, said the scandal had not surprised her.
Many recent polls had predicted Le Pen coming in second after Strauss-Kahn in a hypothetical first-round vote.
With the Socialist Party facing a huge setback to its dream of winning its first election in 24 years, party deputy and Strauss-Kahn ally Jean-Marie Le Guen said everyone should reserve judgment until the IMF chief’s lawyers spoke publicly.
“This has fallen on our heads in a terrible way. Clearly there will be political consequences which we cannot yet calculate,” he told i>Tele television late on Sunday.
“We are in an extremely different moment that requires a lot of prudence. It’s his life and his honor that are at stake.”
Strauss-Kahn’s wife Anne Sinclair said on Sunday she had no doubt he would be proved innocent of the charges.
Political pundits asked how this could have happened just before Strauss-Kahn was expected to announce his bid for the Socialist candidacy, and some speculated he might have been framed.
“I think it’s very likely a trap was set for Dominique Strauss-Kahn and he fell into it,” Christine Boutin, leader of the Christian Democrat Party and a former housing minister under Sarkozy, told BFM television.
“There could be many, many origins,” she said. “It could come from the IMF, it could come from the French right, it could come from the French left. But if it is the case, playing like that with France’s image is not acceptable. Mr Strauss-Kahn’s image is very compromised, but that is nothing next to the damage to France’s image today.”
Editing by Andrew Roche