Many in France see ex-IMF chief as setup victim

Forget what the New York prosecutor says about Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The doubters in France are legion and the country is abuzz with conspiracy theories.

Did Strauss-Kahn bring on his own ruin at a luxury Manhattan hotel? Or did his political enemies in France set him up in a sinister plot to undo the known womanizer who was a top contender to become France's next president?

From the moment that Strauss-Kahn's arrest for the alleged sexual assault of a chambermaid flashed around the world, doubts emerged in France. A week later, with evidence still under wraps and the accused and the accuser silent, speculation abounds.

A poll Thursday suggested that a majority of French, 57 percent, think Strauss-Kahn was the victim of a plot. In a country where low blows pepper the political culture, where people think politicians will do almost anything to keep their perks and where President Nicolas Sarkozy's approval ratings are sinking relentlessly, a plot against the increasingly powerful IMF chief seems plausible to many.

"The trap, you cannot not think of it," Cooperation Minister Henri de Raincourt conceded on Radio France International a day after the arrest. "But we must let justice follow its course without any prior assumptions."

Strauss-Kahn himself is reported to have voiced fears of a setup involving an alleged rape victim last month with a journalist.

And then there are the precedents.

Former conservative Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is now in a slander trial that grew out of accusations he had wind of a dirty tricks campaign against Sarkozy in 2004 and failed to stop it. Sarkozy has said he believes the scheme was meant to upend his 2007 presidential bid.

Doubts are still raised over the 1994 suicide, in his office at the presidential Elysee Palace, of the man considered former Socialist President Francois Mitterrand's closest counselor, Francois de Grossouvre.

And there are those who wonder, nearly two decades later, who really aimed the gun in the 1993 suicide of former Prime Minister Pierre Beregovoy.

Strauss-Kahn's fall from grace on May 14 was brutal. It came minutes before his trans-Atlantic flight for a meeting, as chief of the International Monetary Fund, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The 62-year-old Socialist who led popularity polls for next year's presidential race insists he is innocent and has resigned from his job at the IMF to fight the charges.

He was indicted by a grand jury on charges including criminal sexual abuse and attempted rape for allegedly attacking a 32-year-old maid, a West African immigrant, in his suite at the Sofitel. Strauss-Kahn is now under house arrest in Manhattan, watched by armed guards and tracked with an electronic bracelet, as he prepares his defense.

The French press and Internet forums are flooded with questions from those who suspect a setup or are true believers in his innocence.

— Why would he call the hotel from the airport to recover a forgotten cell phone if he was guilty?

— Why not simply arrange for a female companion rather than assault a maid?

— Why would a maid enter Strauss-Kahn's presidential suite unaccompanied?

"At this stage of the investigation, the hypothesis of a manipulation cannot be swept aside," sociologist Michele Fize wrote in Sunday's Le Monde newspaper.

Le Monde also quoted the director general of the top French firm handling housekeeping in luxury hotels as saying a maid could be fired for entering an occupied room alone. Luxury hotel maids know the protocol: knock, wait, announce oneself, knock again, open the door slightly, said Marie-Francoise Litaudon of the Francaise de Service Group.

Socialist allies thought they saw bids to damage Strauss-Kahn's image weeks before the arrest, when paparazzi arrived in April to photograph him getting into a flashy Porsche. It wasn't his car, it belonged to a friend, but that elitist image won't sit well with Socialist voters. That was followed by an allegation in the France-Soir newspaper that Strauss-Kahn wore $35,000 suits.

"There is a campaign against the personality of Dominique Strauss-Kahn," Socialist lawmaker Jean-Marie Le Guen told Europe-1 radio only hours before the Frenchman was arrested.

A journalist for the left-leaning newspaper Liberation said the politician himself foresaw dirty tricks in the upcoming presidential campaign and confided in an off-the-record meeting April 28 the three obstacles he faced: "money, women and my Jewishness."

"Yes, I love women ... So what?" journalist Antoine Guiral quoted him as saying. Strauss-Kahn even predicted one possible line of attack against him — "a woman raped in a parking lot who has been promised 500,000 or a million euros to invent such a story," Guiral quoted him as saying.

A poll by the CSA firm showed that 57 percent of 1,007 adults questioned at their homes believed Strauss-Kahn was "certainly" or "probably" the victim of a plot, compared to 32 who felt this was "certainly" or "probably" not true. Those polled May 16 were of all levels of education, it said. No margin of error was provided but it would be plus or minus 3 percentage points for a poll of that size.

Bruno Cautres, an analyst at CEVIPOF, a think tank of the prestigious school Science Po where Strauss-Kahn taught for years, says the enormity of the affair and the wave of "this is impossible" remarks by Socialist Party figures may have colored national opinion in favor of a plot theory.

"Whatever the country, there will always be those who believe in a plot (to explain) a dramatic phenomenon," he said. "That is a natural tendency because this phenomenon seems unexplainable and we seek explanations."

Strauss-Kahn's reputation as a successful womanizer makes an alleged sexual assault even less credible because he had ample access to willing women, doubters say. The French barely shrugged when the IMF investigated Strauss-Kahn for a 2008 affair with an employee then absolved him of wrongdoing.

"We have a political culture by which we will pardon a lot of politicians for behavior in private life and not necessarily make the equation that bad behavior in private life equals bad behavior in political life," said Cautres.

Cautres himself dismissed the notion of a plot. "Who would organize it ... given the risk of a leak, of a spectacular revelation?" he asked.

However, Strauss-Kahn's defense team will surely be looking for that "banana peel" that centrist politician Dominique Paille suggested may have been strategically dropped.

What about that tweet on Strauss-Kahn that set off a frenzy in France from a Science Po masters student who belonged to the youth wing of Sarkozy's conservative UMP party?

"A pal in the United States just let me know that DSK was arrested by police in New York an hour ago," Jonathan Pinet tweeted at 22:59 p.m. Paris time (2059 GMT, 4:59 p.m. EDT) on May 14. The timing would be shortly after Strauss-Kahn was escorted off on an Air France plane in New York.

Rejecting any conspiracy ties, Pinet later explained his information came in a Facebook chat with a friend who has another friend who works at the Sofitel in New York — and who likely mistook the happenings there hours earlier for the actual arrest.