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 2007-09 financial meltdown and in Europe's debt crisis, was removed from an Air France plane minutes before it was to leave for Paris from John F Kennedy International Airport on Saturday.
A lawyer representing Strauss-Kahn, Benjamin Brafman, told Reuters in an email that the chief of the International Monetary Fund, the world's main overseer of the global economic system, "will plead not guilty".
The news rocked France, where latest opinion polls ranked Socialist Strauss-Kahn, the front-runner for the presidential election next April and May. Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right National Front, said her rival's hopes were crushed.
The IMF declined to comment and IMF board officials told Reuters they had not been informed officially of the incident.
Renaud Muselier, a member of conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party, said: "It's a disaster for our country and France's image because he is the head of the IMF and it completely changes the cards for the presidential election."
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, told Reuters, adding:
"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 gave Reuters an account of events which led to the state charges against Strauss-Kahn. "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," Browne added.
Strauss-Kahn does not have diplomatic immunity, Browne said. He is expected to be brought before 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 worldwide 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 the IMF's No. 2 official, John Lipsky, plans to step down in August when his term ends.
The IMF managing director has yet to say whether he will run for president, although French opinion polls put him as a clear winner over conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy if the two faced off in an election.
"The NYPD realised he had fled, he had left his cell phone behind," Browne said. "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 brought by EMS (emergency medical services) to the Roosevelt Hospital, where she was treated 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 at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris.
Strauss-Kahn 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 financial meltdown of 2007-09.
Strauss-Kahn introduced sweeping changes at the global institution to ensure that countries swamped by the financial collapse had access to emergency loans.
He was pivotal in brokering bailout programmes for Iceland, Hungary, Greece, Ireland, and recently Portugal.
He has also overseen internal changes that have given emerging market countries, such as China, India and Brazil, greater voting power in the institution, and weighed into thornier issues by urging China to allow its currency to rise in value in a dispute with the United States.
Based in Washington at the IMF's headquarters, Strauss-Kahn has continued to spend a lot of time in France, fanning speculation he was considering re-entering politics as a presidential candidate.
Lipsky's planned departure and now Strauss-Kahn's detention raises questions about a possible leadership vacuum should the IMF chief be charged by U.S. authorities or face possible discipline by the IMF board.
(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton, Noeleen Walder, Catherine Bremer and John Irish; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)
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