IMF chief charged with attempted rape after 'brutal attack' at hotel

European bailout meetings cancelled and French politics left in turmoil after dramatic arrest on runway of New York airport

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the man at the centre of the battle to save the world's economy, was hauled off a plane minutes before it was due to fly yesterday and charged with the attempted rape of a hotel chambermaid, throwing the eurozone's bailout strategy into chaos.

The head of the International Monetary Fund, 62, a former French finance minister and, until yesterday, the overwhelming favourite to win next spring's presidential election, was arrested aboard an Air France jet at JFK Airport in New York. A key player in the global response to the 2008 financial crisis and the eurozone bailouts, Mr Strauss-Kahn was charged with attempted rape, sexual assault and unlawful imprisonment of the chambermaid.

The IMF last night held an emergency meeting to consider Mr Strauss-Kahn's future, and its response to the scandal, while the former US Treasury executive John Lipsky was named as its acting managing director. Mr Strauss-Kahn's New York lawyer said he would plead not guilty.

Whatever the eventual outcome, the consensus in France yesterday was that Mr Strauss-Kahn's hopes of challenging Nicolas Sarkozy for the presidency next spring are dead.

A New York Police Department spokesman, Paul Browne, said the chambermaid claimed that Mr Strauss-Kahn had assaulted her after he emerged naked from a bathroom in his $3,000-a-night suite at the Sofitel Hotel in Times Square on Saturday. "She told detectives he came out of the bathroom naked, ran down a hallway to the foyer (of the suite), pulled her into a bedroom and began sexually to assault her, according to her account," Mr Browne said.

"She pulled away from him and he dragged her down a hallway into the bathroom where he engaged in a criminal sexual act, according to her account to detectives. He tried to lock her into the hotel room."

Mr Browne said there were signs that Mr Strauss-Kahn had left his suite in a hurry. He had left his mobile phone and other possessions behind him. "We learned he was on an Air France plane. They held the plane and he was taken off," Mr Browne said.

Mr Strauss-Kahn's wife, Anne Sinclair, a wealthy television presenter, dismissed the allegations. "I do not believe for a second the accusations levelled against my husband. I appeal for restraint," she said.

Mr Strauss-Kahn, based at the IMF's headquarters in Washington, was flying back to Europe for talks with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, on the debt crisis in the eurozone. He was also due to attend an EU finance ministers' meeting in Brussels today.

There was little schadenfreude from members of Mr Sarkozy's party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire. It was Mr Sarkozy who campaigned for Mr Strauss-Kahn to be given the top IMF job, despite warnings that his attitude to women might cause difficulties in the US. Mr Strauss-Kahn was forced to apologise publicly in October 2008 after an affair with a female IMF economist. An investigation cleared him of sexual harassment.

Some of Mr Strauss-Kahn's Socialist colleagues spoke yesterday of a "trap" intended to force what one colleague described as the "notoriously libertine" Mr Strauss-Kahn out of the race. Others said they were unconvinced by the accusations, but one admitted that Mr Strauss-Kahn had long had a reputation as a man who "had difficulty in keeping his hands to himself in the presence of women".

The biggest beneficiary from his political demise may be the far-right leader, Marine Le Pen. Opinion polls suggest that none of the other front-runners for the Socialist nomination could be sure of beating Ms Le Pen in the first round on 22 April next year to reach the two-candidate run-off next May.

Scandal and success

* This is not the first time that Dominique Strauss-Kahn has had his career derailed by accusations of sexual misconduct. In 2008, he admitted to an affair with a female staff member at the IMF, and apologised for his behaviour. At the time he issued a statement promising to "uphold high standards" in future.

One of the leading lights of the French centre left, Strauss-Kahn has been an influential political figure since the late 1990s. He served in Lionel Jospin's socialist government, before being forced to resign over a corruption scandal in 1999. He was cleared of wrongdoing by a court.

In recent years Strauss-Kahn has steadily raised his profile: he was elected three times to the French National Assembly, building on a reputation as a centrist and a heavyweight economic thinker. After a failed bid to become the socialist presidential candidate in 2006, Strauss-Kahn was proposed as head of the IMF by Nicholas Sarkozy.Leo Hornak

Why Gordon Brown will be watching closely

* Even before Dominique Strauss-Kahn allegedly got himself into trouble, his time as head of the IMF was coming to end. With his ambitions for the French presidency, the organisation was on the hunt for a successor.

Convention dictates that the position goes to a European, and one name constantly linked to the post is Gordon Brown, despite his successor at Number 10 doing all he can to prevent it happening. Mr Brown's "safe pair of hands" would come as welcome relief.

John Lipsky was named yesterday as the acting managing director, but he is expected to leave this summer. That could leave the door open for Italy's Mario Draghi, who has support among some European leaders, though not in The Netherlands. He was hoping for the top job at the European Central Bank but recent events may pave his way to Washington.        

Alistair Dawber