Sex Charges Against IMF Chief France Aghast at Arrest of Socialist Star Strauss-Kahn

The charges against IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn have triggered a political earthquake in France, where he was seen as the best hope of the Socialist opposition to oust President Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2012 election. It's good news for Sarkozy, whose most dangerous rival has gone.  

REUTERS

Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far-right Front National, threw the first stone. Reports that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, known as DSK in France, had been charged with a "criminal sexual act, attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment" had only just flashed up on TV screens when she pounced on the news to attack her political rival.

"The allegations by the American justice are serious enough to discredit his candidacy for the presidential election," said Le Pen, a trained lawyer. "Among the political class in Paris and among journalists, rumors about DSK have been circulating for years," she said. "His pathological attitude towards women is an open secret."

The accusations against the 62-year-old star of France's Socialist opposition, who regularly beat President Nicolas Sarkozy in opinion polls, hasn't just thrown the International Monetary Fund into turmoil, but his party as well.

The IMF chief wasn't without detractors in the traditional left wing of the party, where class war romantics said his job made him a symbol of globalization and financial capital rather than a convincing representative of the working population. But among party pragmatists and in the French middle class, he was seen as unifying figure, not least because of his wealth of government experience. With his solid expertise, the Socialist embodied the same reassuring calm that Francois Mitterrand, the last Socialist president of France, once did.

'This is a Humiliation For the Whole of France'

But it's all over now. The presidential palace has so far declined to comment on the matter but politicians from the ruling conservative UMP party have struggled to contain their delight at the lost honor of DSK. The scandal plays into Sarkozy's hands. Bernard Debré, a lawmaker for the UMP, complained that Strauss-Kahn's arrest hadn't just hurt the Socialist party but the entire French nation. "This is a humiliation for the whole of France," he said. "I am truly appalled."

The French are traditionally tolerant when it comes to the private lives of their political elite. The supposed escapades of President Jacques Chirac were an open secret in Paris, and Mitterrand himself led the life of a bigamist while in office. The public turned a blind eye to DSK's affair with an IMF staff member in 2008.

The news that their top man had been accused of attacking a 32-year-old maid in the Sofitel was met in Socialist party headquarters with deep dismay. "The news that has reached us from New York is like a thunderbolt," said PS leader Martine Aubry. "Like everyone else, I am completely surprised and ask everyone to wait for the reality as determined by the facts."

In a comment directed to her party allies, she warned, "I ask all Socialists to remain unified and responsible."

That won't be easy. Strauss-Kahn supporters were, to be sure, quick to come to his defense with comments such as "that's not like him," or "everything must be investigated." Or they simply said nothing at all. But even as the party is warning against passing premature judgement, Strauss-Kahn's challengers from within the party suddenly see an opportunity.

A New Socialist Candidate?

Aubry leads the list. She had agreed not to challenge Strauss-Kahn were he to make a run for the French presidency. Now, though, she may have her chance to throw her name into the ring after all. Francois Hollande, party leader prior to Aubry, may also make a move. His former partner Ségolène Royal, who lost the last presidential elections in 2007 to Nicolas Sarkozy, may also be interested.

It is impossible to tell which of them might be able to secure the support of those who had thus far backed Strauss-Kahn. Indeed, the only sure thing at the moment is that Strauss-Kahn, the leader in public opinion polls, is finished. Those interested in challenging Sarkozy must register their intentions between June 28 and July 9. The Socialists are set to choose their candidate in an election in October.

It is a timeline that works to Strauss-Kahn's disadvantage. Even if he is declared innocent of all the accusations that have been made against him, his run for the presidency is finished, say Stéphane Rozès, a political scientist at the Sorbonne. "The US judiciary," he said, "does not work according to the schedule of the French Socialists."

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