- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2011

PARIS | Allegations of sexual assault in a New York hotel have torn France’s presidential race asunder and savaged the reputation of the suave and self-assured Dominique Strauss-Kahn, chief of the International Monetary Fund.

The 62-year-old Socialist has topped French opinion polls for months as the man most likely to become this nation’s next president, consistently outshining the little-loved conservative incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Yet on Sunday, Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s allies and rivals alike struggled with shock at news that he was hauled off an Air France flight minutes before takeoff and arrested. He is facing charges of attempted rape and a criminal sex act. In cafes and outdoor markets, French voters shared that disbelief.

For some, the arrest spells the end of the his presidential ambitions and even his political career. Others cautioned that it is too early to judge a man who denies wrongdoing. Still others sniffed a plot to blacken his name, just as France’s presidential campaign heats up for the April 2012 first-round vote.

“It doesn’t spell the end for a politician, it spells the end for a man, period. And that is dramatic,” said former Adidas owner and prominent French businessman Bernard Tapie.

All options point to disarray on France’s political landscape for a while to come. Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s absence from the fray could leave more room for the resurgent far right or hand a lift to Socialist rival Francois Hollande or even to Mr. Sarkozy himself.

The arrest also marks a striking fall from grace for a man who built up a formidable reputation as a problem-solver and sharp negotiator as IMF chief during the global financial crisis. That reputation had reflected well on France, and many French voters were hoping he could bring it home with him next year.

The arrest is “humiliating for the IMF and humiliating for our country,” said lawmaker Bernard Debre of Mr. Sarkozy’s conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

Neither Mr. Strauss-Kahn nor Mr. Sarkozy has formally declared his candidacy. A poll by the IFOP agency published over the weekend showed Mr. Strauss-Kahn with the highest support among possible presidential candidates, trailed closest by Mr. Sarkozy and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Miss Le Pen, who heads the National Front Party, said Sunday that Mr. Strauss-Kahn has been “definitively discredited.”

Mr. Sarkozy, his popularity in the doldrums for months, did not comment publicly Sunday. Voters on the left and within his conservative party are frustrated by Mr. Sarkozy’s hardline stance on immigrants and his failure to fulfill many promises he made to boost France’s economy.

Socialist Party chief Martine Aubry, who harbors presidential ambitions of her own, said the news of Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s arrest hit her “like a thunderbolt.” She called on the long-divided Socialist Party to “remain united and responsible” pending further developments.

Others believe his career is finished.

“I don’t see very well how he can pick himself back up,” said Philippe Martinat, who wrote a book called “DSK-Sarkozy: The Duel.”

A married father of four, Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who has a reputation as a seducer, was investigated briefly in 2008 on whether he had an improper relationship with a subordinate female employee. The IMF board found his actions “reflected a serious error of judgment” but deemed the relationship consensual.

“[Seducing women] was Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s Achilles heel. We knew he had a fragility in this sense,” Mr. Martinat said.

But attempted rape charges are not the same as an extramarital fling and could do far more damage than anything he has faced before.

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