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Strauss-Kahn Arrest May Reset French Presidential Race

Francois Hollande
Francois Hollande, candidate for the French Socialist Party 2012 primary elections, takes part in the TV broadcast show "Dimanche +" on Canal Plus channel set in Paris on May 15, 2011 in Paris. Photographer: Bertrand Langois/AFP/Getty Images

Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest on attempted-rape charges may reset France’s presidential election race, improving the odds for his Socialist Party challenger Francois Hollande and eliminating President Nicolas Sarkozy’s biggest rival.

Strauss-Kahn, who was charged yesterday with attempted rape and a criminal sex act on a New York hotel maid, was ordered held without bail by a judge in a Manhattan court today. Strauss-Kahn has denied the charges and will plead not guilty, his lawyer Benjamin Brafman has said.

The legal proceedings may force him to stay in the U.S. for several months, while the deadline to participate in the Socialist Party primaries is June 28. The International Monetary Fund’s chief, who led in all the election opinion polls in the past six months, may be scrapped off the candidates list.

“Whatever the investigation shows, Strauss-Kahn cannot make it back to the race and maybe not to French politics all together,” Gerard Grunberg, a professor at the Political Sciences Institute in Paris, said in a telephone interview. “The game is reset; Hollande may take the lead at the Socialist primaries, Sarkozy will try to win over Strauss-Kahn supporters at the center and National Front leader Marine Le Pen is banking on the failure of France’s elite.”

The reshuffling of the cards may prompt efforts to grab the left and center-left voters that Strauss-Kahn’s potential candidacy attracted.

Poll Lead

The two-round French presidential elections will be held April 22 and May 6, 2012. The Socialist Party plans to hold its primaries in October. The ruling Union for a Popular Movement has no primaries planned and Sarkozy, 56, has yet to declare his candidacy.

Strauss-Kahn’s sexual attack on the 32-year-old maid allegedly occurred on May 14 at a Sofitel hotel in midtown Manhattan, according to the New York Police Department. Strauss-Kahn, who was taken into custody aboard an Air France flight at John F. Kennedy International Airport, also was charged with unlawful imprisonment.

The latest poll on the French presidential race, published in yesterday’s Journal du Dimanche and conducted before Strauss-Kahn was charged in New York, put the IMF chief at the top of the list of candidates for the Socialist Party.

‘Thunder Bolt’

The Ifop poll also estimated that he would eliminate Sarkozy in the first round with 26 percent against 21.5 percent. He would have faced anti-immigration Le Pen in the run-off as she gathered 22 percent of the votes, the Paris-based institute Ifop estimated, without publishing a margin of error.

The Strauss-Kahn news is “like a thunder bolt,” Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry said in a statement yesterday. “I am asking the Socialists to remain united and responsible.”

Aubry, 60, who had indicated she wouldn’t run against Strauss-Kahn, may now be forced to take the plunge, Grunberg said. She would face Hollande, 56, and several other candidates including Segolene Royal, 57, who lost to Sarkozy at the last ballot in 2007. Former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, 64, may join the Socialist race as well, political analysts said.

Sarkozy, who declined to comment on Strauss-Kahn’s arrest, may benefit from his main rival’s downfall if he manages to grab the centrist voters Strauss-Kahn was attracting, Grunberg said.

‘Blurs the Game’

This would force Sarkozy to strike a balance between drawing National Front voters on the extreme right, while at the same time not scaring centrist voters and maintaining his core supporters.

“Maybe it will too much for one man,” Grunberg said. “Losing your main rival is not always a good thing, it blurs the game.”

Le Pen, who draws her support in opinion polls mostly from French blue-collar workers, said Strauss-Kahn’s alleged sexual crime “puts a brutal end to his candidacy.”

Grunberg said the scandal will be a “bonanza” for Le Pen’s campaign against the “corrupt French Parisian elite.”

Strauss-Kahn’s popularity eroded in recent weeks with criticism of his ”luxurious” lifestyle after he was photographed with his wife in central Paris in early May with a Porsche.

Hollande’s Gain

The same Ifop survey for the JDD showed Hollande’s rising popularity. The man who dubbed himself as “normal,” gathered 23 percent of the votes for the first round, against 22 percent for Sarkozy, and equal to Le Pen.

Asked about his increased chances yesterday, Hollande responded that it was ”too early” to say if Strauss-Kahn would renounce running.

“I won’t raise myself by depreciating others,” Hollande told Canal Plus TV yesterday. “I have been campaigning for several months, I do things simply, clearly, according what I believe is the good order and the good way to talk to the French people.”

Jean-Louis Borloo, the head of the center Radical Party and a former Sarkozy government minister, may decide to run as Strauss-Kahn’s elimination opens a political space for him. Borloo is among France’s most popular politicians, according to Ifop.

“French people will want to turn a new page in 2012,” political analyst Stephane Rozes told BFM TV and cited Borloo, Aubry and Hollande as potential winners. “They will want someone who puts the job above their personal agendas, someone who doesn’t get drunk with power.”

Tarnished France

For Strauss-Kahn, this is the second sex-related scandal since he was named IMF’s managing director in 2007. In 2008 he was found to be having an affair with an economist at the IMF.

The Washington-based fund’s investigation cleared him of abuse of power. Strauss-Kahn wrote to the fund’s employees at the time that “this incident constituted an error in judgment on my part, for which I take full responsibility.” His wife, the former television journalist Anne Sinclair, wrote on her blog a few weeks later that “this affair is now behind us,”

Sinclair yesterday said she doesn’t believe the New York hotel maid’s accusations. She had “no doubts his innocence will be established,” according to a statement she sent to the Agence France-Presse.

Strauss-Kahn was expected to attend the Group of Eight meeting in Deauville, Normandy on May 26 and 27, along with U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He was expected to announce his presidential candidacy shortly thereafter.

“The poison has been injected,” Edouard Lecerf a pollster at TNS-Sofres said on i-Tele yesterday. “It’s not good for French politics in general, it tarnishes his image domestically and abroad as well as France’s status.”

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