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 Strauss-Kahn 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, Strauss-Kahn's allies and rivals alike struggled with shock at news that he was hauled off an Air France flight minutes before takeoff, arrested and facing charges of attempted rape and a criminal sex act. An arraignment expected Sunday night was postponed until Monday.
In cafes and outdoor markets, French voters shared that disbelief.
For some, the arrest spells the end of the prominent Socialist's presidential ambitions and even his political career. Others cautioned that it's 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. 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 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 Sarkozy's conservative UMP party.
Neither Strauss-Kahn nor Sarkozy has formally declared their presidential candidacy but both are widely expected to want to run. A poll by the IFOP agency published this weekend showed Strauss-Kahn with the highest support among possible presidential candidates, trailed closest by Sarkozy and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Le Pen, who heads the National Front party, said Sunday that Strauss-Kahn has been "definitively discredited."
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 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 Strauss-Kahn's arrest hit her "like a thunderbolt. I am, like everyone, stupefied."
She called on the long-divided Socialist Party to "remain united and responsible" pending further developments.
Others were ready to call it a day for Strauss-Kahn's career.
"I think his political career is over," Philippe Martinat, who wrote a book called "DSK-Sarkozy: The Duel," told The Associated Press. "Behind him he has other affairs ... I don't see very well how he can pick himself back up."
Strauss-Kahn is known in France as "DSK" for his initials, but French media have also dubbed him "the great seducer." His reputation as a charmer of women has not hurt his career in France, where politicians' private lives traditionally come under less scrutiny than in the United States.
A married father of four, Strauss-Kahn was briefly investigated in 2008 over 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," said Martinat.
But attempted rape charges are not the same as an extramarital fling and could do far more damage than anything he has faced before.
Several French politicians urged caution in judging Strauss-Kahn.
Segolene Royal, who beat him for the Socialist presidential nomination in 2007 elections and is considering another bid, told AP in Paris on Sunday: "Dominique Strauss-Kahn has the right, like everybody, to the presumption of innocence. We have to allow justice to do its work."
Strauss-Kahn ally Jean-Marie Le Guen recently suggested the IMF chief was the subject of a smear campaign when pictures of Strauss-Kahn in a Porsche — deemed inappropriate for a Socialist candidate as France struggles with nearly 10 percent unemployment — circulated in the French media.
"The facts as they were reported today have nothing to do with the Dominique Strauss-Kahn whom we know," he said Sunday on France's BFM television. "Dominique Strauss-Kahn has never exhibited violence toward people close to him, to anyone."
Strauss-Kahn, born in 1949 in an affluent Paris suburb and raised partly in Morocco, started his career as an economics professor before becoming a legislator and later government minister. He helped prepare France to join the euro and pave the way for the country's celebrated 35-hour workweek.
Jerome Fourquet of the IFOP polling agency said the impact of the arrest will depend on its duration.
"If he's cleared, he could return — but if he is let off only after four or five months, he won't be able to run" because the presidential campaign will be too far along, he said.
Fourquet said supporters of Sarkozy "are going to be quietly gleeful — but they're going to be very careful" in public.
Regardless of the outcome, "it's a catastrophe for the image of our country," Fourquet said.
Nicolas Garriga, Alexis Duclos and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.