NEW YORK/PARIS (Reuters) - Dominique Strauss-Kahn faced growing pressure to quit as head of the IMF on Wednesday after his arrest and detention in a New York jail on attempted rape charges.
The arrest, while dashing his prospects for the French presidency, has also raised a broader question over the future of the world economic body. Developing countries, looking to a succession, have questioned Europe's hold on the post.
The United States, the IMF's biggest shareholder, said Strauss-Kahn was clearly unable to go on running the global lender from a prison cell, whatever the eventual outcome of the allegations of sexual assault on a New York hotel maid.
"I can't comment on the case, but he is obviously not in a position to run the IMF," Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said, calling for an official stand-in to be named.
China, Brazil and South Africa questioned Europe's right to the International Monetary Fund job but Europeans said it made sense for them to retain the post while the Fund plays such a crucial role in helping to ease the euro zone debt crisis.
Strauss-Kahn, who denies the charges, is expected to remain in New York's Rikers Island jail, known for gang violence, at least until his next court appearance on Friday, when lawyers may again request bail. Any trial could be six months away.
A law enforcement source said he had been placed on suicide watch, but purely as a precautionary measure.
A lawyer for the maid, a 32-year-old widow from the West African nation of Guinea with a 15-year-old daughter, said she had not been aware of Strauss-Kahn's identity until a day after the alleged attack.
"She didn't have any idea who he was or have any prior dealings with this guy," Jeffrey Shapiro, a New York personal injury lawyer, told Reuters.
"She wants to remain anonymous because she's very much afraid that something could happen to her physically, she feels very threatened by this," he said of the global attention.
An opinion poll in France, taken before his first court appearance on Monday and released on Wednesday, showed that more than half the population believe Strauss-Kahn was set up.
The CSA poll found that 57 percent of respondents thought that the Socialist politician, who had been favourite for the 2012 French presidential election, was definitely or probably the victim of a plot.
Fully 70 percent of Socialist sympathisers took that view. Yet only one politician -- not a Socialist -- has publicly suggested such an explanation and most French media have dismissed conspiracy theories.
The poll findings highlighted a cultural divide, with French Socialist politicians and commentators denouncing what they see as the degrading parading of Strauss-Kahn, unshaven and in handcuffs, before he has had a chance to defend himself.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg agreed such a display was humiliating and would be unfair if a defendant were to be found innocent. "But if you don't want to do the 'perp walk', don't do the crime," he told reporters.
U.S. media have criticised the French for a tradition of secrecy on politicians' sex lives, and for showing more compassion for Strauss-Kahn than for the alleged rape victim, whose identity some French newspapers have published.
The IMF said it had not been in touch with Strauss-Kahn since his arrest but it would be important to do so "in due course". Two IMF board sources told Reuters the board would ask Strauss-Kahn whether he planned to continue in his post.
Strauss-Kahn is accused of trying to rape a maid who came to clean his luxury suite at the Sofitel hotel in Manhattan on Saturday. His lawyer has said he will plead not guilty. If convicted, he could face 25 years in prison.
In the only public hint of Strauss-Kahn's possible line of defence, his attorney Benjamin Brafman told his arraignment hearing on Monday: "The evidence we believe will not be consistent with a forcible encounter."
The French daily Liberation said the IMF chief had told its editors in off-record comments last month that he had just the right qualities to lead France, notably a calm manner, in contrast to conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"Today I fit with everything the French people want -- recognised competence, calm, international experience," he was quoted as having said at an April 28 meeting.
In Strauss-Kahn's absence, John Lipsky, the IMF's number two, is temporarily in charge of the institution which manages the world economy and is central to negotiating debt crisis deals. But no formal interim chief has been named.
The White House is considering proposing David Lipton, President Barack Obama's international economic adviser and a former deputy treasury secretary, to replace Lipsky, whose term ends in August, sources familiar with the matter said.
Strauss-Kahn's arrest has thrown the IMF into turmoil just as it is helping euro zone states like Greece, Ireland and Portugal tackle debt woes.
In Europe, Strauss-Kahn began to lose support on Tuesday.
"Given the situation, that bail has been denied, he has to consider that he would otherwise do damage to the institution," Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter said.
A European has held the post of managing director since the IMF was created in 1945, and four of them have been French.
French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde is thought to be interested in the post but her prospects have been clouded by a decision this month by a Paris public prosecutor to recommend a full-scale inquiry into her role in awarding financial compensation to a prominent businessman in 2008.
But emerging countries are starting to flex their muscle over who should succeed Strauss-Kahn, who had been expected to leave soon anyway to run for French president.
China said on Tuesday the selection of the next IMF boss should be based on "fairness, transparency and merit".
It marked the first time that China, the fund's third largest member, weighed in early and so publicly on an IMF selection debate.
South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and a senior Brazilian government official, who asked not to be named, said the next chief should be from a developing country, pressing a case to give emerging economies a greater say in world affairs.
But Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega said the affair should not be used to press for changes in the way the IMF head is picked, telling GloboNews TV the discussion "is too premature at this point" and Strauss-Kahn was "probably one of the best IMF chiefs that we had in the past years".
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday the Fund's role in tackling the euro zone crisis meant it made sense for Europe to keep the job, although the post could go to the developing world in the future.
(Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Ralph Boulton)
Did you find this article insightful?