NEW YORK/PARIS (Reuters) - Dominique Strauss-Kahn spent a third night in a New York jail, prompting expressions of shock among some in France that the IMF chief had been denied bail on attempted rape charges that may scupper his French presidential hopes.
His allies in the Socialist party, some jockeying for position ahead of a primary contest which had been tipped to hand the candidacy to Strauss-Kahn, met for crisis talks on Tuesday but said they would not change the selection timetable.
French politicians and commentators reacted with surprise and anger at the New York judge’s decision to remand Strauss-Kahn, once the biggest threat to conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy in an election due next April. His parading in handcuffs before the world’s media, bedraggled and unshaven, appeared particularly stark.
“He is a brave man on whom a contemptuous fate has been inflicted,” former Socialist culture minister Jack Lang told Europe 1 radio, complaining of a “lynching”.
“It is not unthinkable that certain judicial officials, the prosecutor in particular or the judge, is driven by a desire to take down a Frenchman, a Frenchman who is moreover well known.”
Strauss-Kahn denies the charge that he sexually assaulted a maid in a Manhattan hotel on Saturday and says he has an alibi. He is next due to appear in court on May 20.
Strauss-Kahn’s arrest has blown open the race for the Elysee Palace, enhancing Sarkozy’s chances of re-election, and thrown the Fund into turmoil even as it plays a key role in helping euro zone states like Greece and Portugal tackle debt woes.
Speculation has begun on who might lead the global lender, with interest focusing particularly on whether western Europe, which has had an effective lock on the job since its creation after World War Two, can hang on to the position in the face of growing challenges from the rising economic powers of Asia.
China’s foreign ministry weighed in on Tuesday, declining to comment on Strauss-Kahn but saying the selection process for IMF leaders should be based on “fairness, transparency and merit”.
Although Strauss-Kahn had been expected to resign soon in order to run for office in France, European efforts to hang on to the influential post show little sign yet of consensus.
One possible choice, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, would face likely opposition from his own successor in government and many doubt whether another well qualified choice, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, could overcome reluctance to see another choice from Paris in the job.
A Berlin newspaper floated the names of Josef Ackermann, chief executive of Germany’s private Deutsche Bank, and of Thomas Mirow, a German politician who heads the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a public body.
Socialist Party chief Martine Aubry, under increasing pressure to contest the primary herself following Strauss-Kahn’s arrest, said the party would not be rushed into changing its plans. Primary candidates are due to declare by July.
“We have a timetable and today is not the moment” to declare a candidacy, she told France Info radio on Tuesday. “We are not changing anything in our timetable” for the primary.
Her reluctance to throw her hat into the ring has led some commentators to question her appetite for the presidential race that many see offering the Left its best chance of winning in a quarter of a century.
Strauss-Kahn’s spectacular fall from grace could benefit Sarkozy, even if his political rival was in fact the person who nominated the former French finance minister for the IMF job in the first place, four years ago.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen could also pick up support if voters grow disillusioned with mainstream politics.
“K.O.” headlined the left-leaning Liberation newspaper, reflecting the almost universal view in France that his political career had suffered a ‘knock-out’.
Sarkozy, whose re-election campaign may be enhanced by new signals that his wife is expecting a baby, has kept above the fray. He has made no comment on the fate of the man once seen as his likely nemesis. Aides made known on Tuesday that he had told supporters to maintain a “lofty” and “dignified” approach.
“What matters to people are the difficulties of their daily lives,” he was quoted as telling senior parliamentary allies.
“We must lead the country. We are the rocks they depend on.”
A French writer is also considering seeking attempted rape charges against Strauss-Kahn that date back almost a decade.
Her lawyer said no complaint would be lodged on Tuesday.
French newspapers were awash with pictures of an unshaven and haggard Strauss-Kahn looked drained and tense during his first court appearance on Monday as prosecutors detailed his alleged attack against a maid at a luxury hotel.
“He sexually assaulted her and attempted to forcibly rape her. When he was unsuccessful, he forced her to perform oral sex on him,” Assistant District Attorney John McConnell told the court.
Strauss-Kahn faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted.
Judge Melissa Jackson was persuaded by prosecutors that Strauss-Kahn, might try to flee to France, so she ordered him put behind bars and set a new hearing for Friday. Police had pulled Strauss-Kahn off an Air France jet on Saturday just minutes before it was to leave for Paris.
His lawyers are expected to appeal the judge’s bail decision and it could be a key issue in the case. Bail would give Strauss-Kahn much better access to his attorneys and allow him to live in New York with his wife, prominent French television personality Anne Sinclair, while awaiting trial.
The IMF board has so far held off on deciding whether or not to remove him from his job. If he is forced out, there could be a fierce battle over who would succeed him, weakening the IMF’s efforts to deal with the euro zone crisis.
The board met informally on Monday for an update on Strauss-Kahn but made no decision on whether to remove him from his job, either permanently or temporarily.
The board also faces questions about why it let Strauss-Kahn off with just a reprimand in 2008 after he was found to be having an extra-marital affair with a subordinate. Persistent rumours inside the IMF that he often made unwanted sexual advances to women have long dogged his tenure there.
(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols, Lesley Wroughton, Noeleen Walder, Matt Daily, Andrew Longstreth, Brian Love, Catherine Bremer, John Irish, Gernot Heller and Evren Ballim; Writing by William Schomberg and Kieran Murray; Editing by Jackie Frank; writing by Jon Boyle and Alastair Macdonald; editing by Ralph Boulton)