NEW YORK/PARIS (Reuters) - IMF chief and possible French presidential contender Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested and charged on Sunday with sexual assault, including an attempted rape, on a hotel maid in New York City.
Strauss-Kahn, 62, a key player in the response to the 2007-9 global financial meltdown and in Europe's debt crisis, was taken off an Air France plane about to leave for Paris from John F Kennedy International Airport on Saturday.
One of his lawyers, Benjamin Brafman, told Reuters that the chief of the International Monetary Fund, the main overseer of the global economic system, "will plead not guilty".
The news rocked France, where latest opinion polls ranked Socialist Strauss-Kahn as front-runner for the nation's presidential election next April and May.
"All this is completely astounding, immensely troubling and distressing. If the facts prove true ... it's something degrading for all women. It's terrible for the image of France," said Francois Bayrou, a centrist opponent of Strauss-Kahn.
The IMF declined to comment and IMF board officials told Reuters they had not been informed officially of the incident.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen said her rival's presidential hopes had been crushed. Strauss-Kahn and Le Pen have led recent opinion polls ahead of conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy.
New York police spokesman Paul Browne said Strauss-Kahn was arrested at 2:15 a.m. (0615 GMT) on Sunday on charges of criminal sexual act, attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment.
"We must wait until things settle and see if it's true or a provocation, one of Strauss-Kahn's French-based lawyers, Leon Lef Forster, said. "We must be especially careful not to get into a media circus and we must wait until things are clear."
A 32-year-old maid filed a sexual assault complaint after fleeing the $3,000-a-night hotel suite at the Sofitel in Times Square where the alleged incident occurred around 1 p.m. (1700 GMT) on Saturday, Browne said.
Strauss-Kahn appeared to have fled the hotel after the incident, the police spokesman said.
Browne told Reuters: "She told detectives he came out of the bathroom naked, ran down a hallway to the foyer where she was, pulled her into a bedroom and began to sexually assault her, according to her account.
"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."
Strauss-Kahn does not have diplomatic immunity, Browne said. He is expected to be brought before a state court on Sunday.
According to New York state law, a criminal sexual act carries a potential sentence of 15-20 years, the same as attempted rape. Unlawful imprisonment carries a potential sentence of three to five years.
IMPACT ON IMF
The allegation is a major embarrassment to the IMF, which has authorised billions of dollars in lending programmes to troubled countries and has played a major role in the euro zone debt crisis.
It follows a statement on Thursday that the IMF's No. 2, John Lipsky, plans to step down in August when his term ends.
Popularly known by his initials DSK, the IMF managing director had been expected to declare by late June if he would run for president of France. The latest opinion polls ranked him as a clear winner over conservative incumbent Sarkozy.
"The case and the charges ... mark the end of his campaign and pre-campaign for the presidency and will most likely prompt the IMF to ask him to leave his post," National Front leader Le Pen told i-Tele television.
Conservative Trade Minister Pierre Lellouche said: "I think we have to grant DSK the presumption of innocence. If all this were true it would be damning."
Even Strauss-Kahn's political allies were pessimistic.
"The most likely outcome is that this case will stick and even if he pleads not guilty, which he may be, he won't be able to be candidate for the Socialist primary for the presidency and he won't be able to stay at the IMF," said prominent Socialist Jacques Attali.
If Strauss-Kahn were out of the race, leading candidates for the Socialist presidential ticket include party leader Martine Aubry, left-wing veteran Francois Hollande and Segolene Royal, the candidate beaten by Sarkozy in 2007.
PLANE HELD AT JFK
In New York, police spokesman Browne said: "The NYPD realised he had fled, he had left his cell phone behind. We learned he was on an Air France plane. They held the plane and he was taken off and is now being held in police custody for questioning."
After being removed from the aircraft's first-class section, he was taken to the police department's Special Victims Unit in Manhattan, known to viewers of a hit U.S. television show based on its work. The woman, who has not been named, was treated in hospital for minor injuries, Browne said.
Strauss-Kahn was on his way to Europe for a meeting on Sunday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the European debt crisis, and then was to attend a euro zone finance ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday.
Strauss-Kahn took over the IMF in November 2007 for a five-year term scheduled to end next year. Before that, he was a French finance minister, member of the French National Assembly and a professor of economics.
He has faced controversy before.
In October 2008, he apologised for "an error of judgment" for an affair with a female IMF economist who was his subordinate. An inquiry cleared him of harassment and abuse of power, although he was warned by the fund's board of member countries against further improper conduct.
Strauss-Kahn apologised to the woman, Piroska Nagy, and his wife, French television personality Anne Sinclair, as well as to IMF employees for the trouble he had caused.
Since taking over the IMF, he has won praise for putting the fund at the centre of global efforts to cope with the global financial meltdown.
He introduced sweeping changes to ensure that countries swamped by the financial collapse had access to emergency loans, and was pivotal in brokering bailouts for Iceland, Hungary, Greece, Ireland, and recently Portugal.
He has overseen changes that have given emerging market countries, such as China, India and Brazil, greater voting power in the IMF, and weighed into thornier issues by urging China to let its currency rise in a dispute with the United States.
Lipsky's planned departure and now Strauss-Kahn's detention raise questions about a possible IMF leadership vacuum.
(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton, Noeleen Walder, Catherine Bremer and John Irish; Writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Peter Millership)
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