Arrest of IMF Chief on Attempted-Rape Charges Throws French Presidential Race into Chaos

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in April 2011

The news of the arrest of IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, 62, was shocking in its own right: late afternoon on Saturday, May 14, Port Authority police took Strauss-Kahn from the first-class cabin of an Air France flight at John F. Kennedy International Airport that was about to depart for Paris amid allegations that he attempted to rape a midtown Manhattan hotel maid earlier in the day. But considering the fact that the former French Finance Minister was widely expected to run against President Nicolas Sarkozy in the election next year, the turn of events was particularly stunning.

In fact, DSK, as the French call one of the country's leading political figures, happens to be on the cover of virtually every French magazine this week as the country's possible next President, and several have recently featured photos of him with his wife Anne Sinclair, a U.S.-born veteran French television journalist. So it didn't take long for the news, which broke at about 2 a.m. Paris time, to throw next May's French presidential race into upheaval by quite possibly removing the only candidate clearly capable of beating Sarkozy.

On Sunday French liberal politicians urged people not to rush to judgment. Strauss-Kahn's close associate and spokesman Jean-Marie le Guen told Europe 1 radio that "this episode does not resemble the Dominique Strauss-Kahn I know." Ségolène Royal, who beat out Strauss-Kahn for the party nomination in 2006 before her poorly run presidential race was blamed for having buried the Socialists' chances, said on Sunday that "there must be a presumption of innocence."

The New York City police department claims that at about 1 p.m. on Saturday, a hotel maid entered a $3,000-a-night suite at the Sofitel near Times Square, believing that it was empty. Strauss-Kahn then emerged naked from the bathroom and grabbed her, pulled her into the bedroom and threw her onto the bed, before trying to lock the suite's main door, according to NYPD deputy commissioner Paul Browne, who outlined the charges to reporters. "She fights him off, and then he drags her down the hallway to the bathroom, where he sexually assaults her a second time," he told Reuters.

The maid, 32, finally managed to push Strauss-Kahn away and escape, according to Browne, and her colleagues called 911. Strauss-Kahn had checked out by the time police arrived at the hotel, leaving behind his cell phone. He was arrested on charges of attempted rape, conducting a criminal sexual act and unlawful imprisonment of the woman. Early Sunday, Strauss-Kahn's lawyer Benjamin Brafma told Reuters that his client, who was still in police custody and was expected to appear in state court sometime on Sunday, would plead not guilty.

For Strauss-Kahn's Socialist Party, the timing could hardly be worse. After years in the political wilderness, the party is getting ready to nominate its contender, and in Strauss-Kahn, it appeared to have finally found a winner. Recent French opinion polls put him far ahead of Sarkozy in next year's race. The recent photos of Strauss-Kahn's high-altitude lifestyle — which this week included him stepping out of a Porsche — have provoked discomfort among many French leftists, who fear that he is too rich and privileged to appeal to their traditional working-class base. Yet even that appeared to be little political obstacle to Strauss-Kahn, who seemed to have a solid chance of victory.

The ramifications of Strauss-Kahn's arrest extend beyond the gilded government palaces in Paris, however.

In Washington, it could raise questions about why the IMF gave Strauss-Kahn a free pass in 2008 after he began an affair with a Hungarian economist, who was his subordinate at the organization. While concluding that he had shown poor judgment, the IMF decided not to censure or remove Strauss-Kahn, at a time when the world faced the deepest financial crisis since the Great Depression; for his part, Strauss-Kahn issued a statement declaring that "I am grateful that the board has confirmed that there was no abuse of authority on my part, but I accept that this incident represents a serious error of judgment."

Since then, Strauss-Kahn has won praise for his handling of the global meltdown. This time, however, IMF officials immediately distanced themselves from their chief. A two-sentence IMF statement on Sunday said that Strauss-Kahn's arrest was a matter for the NYPD and his personal attorney and that the organization "remains fully functioning and operational." Nonetheless, the IMF could face an internal crisis, since Strauss-Kahn's deputy, John Lipsky, announced on May 12 that he was leaving the organization in August; for the moment, Lipsky will serve as the IMF's acting managing director, the organization announced on Sunday.

Across Europe, too, Strauss-Kahn's arrest will have a major impact. It could affect critical negotiations over the European Union's deep debt crisis, in which Strauss-Kahn has been a key — if not the key — player. He was due to attend emergency debt meetings in Brussels this week, and perhaps mindful that he could soon be one of the E.U.'s most powerful leaders, as French President, he has cautioned for months against harsh austerity measures for debt-ridden countries Portugal and Greece.

That now seems like a comparatively simple challenge. Rather than fight to move into the Elysee Palace, Strauss-Kahn will have to fight to keep himself out of jail, perhaps for years.