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Strauss-Kahn arrest impacts on French election

The arrest of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn on sexual assault charges has plunged France's Socialists into turmoil and thrown wide open the race for the presidency.

France was mesmerised today by TV images of a handcuffed Strauss-Kahn, a centre-leftist viewed until now as the frontrunner for the 2012 election, being led away by police for DNA tests over the alleged assault in a New York hotel.

His lawyers said Strauss-Kahn would plead not guilty to charges that he tried to rape a chambermaid at the hotel after chasing her, naked, down a corridor and trying to lock her in a room.

While politicians from all parties said Strauss-Kahn, popularly known by his initials DSK, should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, political commentators were unanimous in pronouncing the last rites on his political career.

"One thing is certain: Dominique Strauss-Kahn will not be the next president of the French republic," the conservative daily Le Figaro said in an editorial.

"In the space of 15 days the new idol of the French left has exploded. Such a swift disintegration has rarely been seen," editorialist Paul-Henri du Limbert wrote.

Strauss-Kahn's arrest is a big setback to the opposition Socialist Party, which kicks off its primary in July as part of its campaign to win its first presidential election in 24 years.

"The Socialists have lost the candidate who was riding high in the polls ... (and was) the best placed to beat (President) Nicolas Sarkozy," wrote the left-leaning Liberation newspaper. Its headline said: "DSK Out".

Before his arrest, Strauss-Kahn had been the subject of mounting media commentary on his lifestyle. Critics accused him of a fondness for women, an easy relationship with money and a luxury lifestyle that sat uneasily with his Socialist credentials.

Liberation published comments he made at the end of April when he said the three most difficult issues for his presidential bid would be: "Money, women and my Jewishness"

"Yes I like women ... So what? ... For years there's been talk of photos of massive orgies, but nothing has ever come out .... So, let them show them", the paper quoted him as saying.

Political commentators said pictures of Strauss-Kahn being led away by police in handcuffs would make it all but impossible for the former finance minister to run for the presidency.

Senior Socialist leaders are due to meet on Tuesday to discuss the crisis.

The Les Echos business daily said centrists like former ecology minister Jean-Louis Borloo might also benefit.

On the right, Sarkozy's UMP party kept a low profile. Some saw Strauss-Kahn's legal woes boosting the chances of the unpopular president, but others suggested that Hollande's cleaner image could make him a greater threat than DSK ever was.

"On paper, the affair seems to relaunch the chances of the head of state, whose re-election seemed, even for many on the right, impossible," Les Echos said.

But one close Sarkozy aide told the paper: "Strauss-Kahn was the easiest adversary. He wiped out Sarkozy's faults."