IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn was the front runner in the latest opinion polls to win next year’s presidential election in France and replace Nicolas Sarkozy.
The 62-year-old Socialist, who was French finance minister in the 1990s, left for Washington in late 2007 to head the International Monetary Fund just as the global economy was hit by the worst downturn since the Second World War.
The polls have consistently shown Strauss-Kahn, who has yet to officially declare his candidacy, trouncing Sarkozy and leading all other potential challengers in the presidential election next April and May.
That was until the news of his arrest in New York over an alleged sexual assault on a hotel maid.
Prosecutors charged him with a criminal sexual act, attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment.
Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer said he denies the charges.
No stranger to controversy, Strauss-Kahn was investigated by the IMF in 2008 over possible abuse of power involving a brief affair with an IMF economist. He was cleared and apologised publicly for “a serious error of judgment”.
News of his arrest at New York’s JFK airport could hardly have come at a more critical moment.
France’s Socialist Party, the main opposition party, holds a primary contest to pick a runner for the presidential race and candidates have to register soon. Strauss-Kahn was widely expected to declare his intentions by late June.
He lost a similar primary in 2006 to Segolene Royal in a disappointing performance that prompted the US ambassador at the time to say Strauss-Kahn lacked the “fire in the belly” it takes to wage a presidential campaign.
Sarkozy won the ensuing 2007 election and is expected to seek a second term, though polls have shown him lagging behind Strauss-Kahn and struggling with a public image as a brittle, defensive personality the French find it hard to warm to.
Raised in a secular and liberal Jewish household in Morocco and Monaco, Strauss-Kahn launched into an academic career before entering politics. Suave and multilingual, witty and self-confident, he built a reputation as a formidable public orator and a charming negotiator in private.
Like Sarkozy, he has been married three times, the first time to his high-school sweetheart at the age of 18.
To some Frenchmen of an older generation, Strauss-Kahn’s third and current wife, Anne Sinclair, is arguably the bigger celebrity, despite having long swapped her job as the most-watched interviewer on French current affairs TV for the role of loyal spouse and part-time blogger.
Sinclair, who married Strauss-Kahn when he was an industry minister in 1991 under the late Socialist president Francois Mitterrand, is granddaughter and heiress of one of France’s biggest art dealers, and was born in New York where her father fled the war-time Nazi persecution of Jews.
When he had to make a public apology over the affair at the IMF, Sinclair stuck by his side in a way that prompted comparisons to Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state and wife of former US president Bill Clinton.
French voters are tolerant of their leaders’ sex lives and their media tend to avoid the issue as a matter of principle.
A child Mitterrand fathered outside his marriage was unknown to most people until she turned up at his funeral.
Far from French shores, Strauss-Kahn has carefully nurtured his left-wing credentials and built up a contact book that would put many a statesman to shame.
He has also found plenty of time to visit his home country as well as a house in Marrakesh, Morocco.
When the global economic crisis struck at the end of 2007, Strauss-Kahn liked to let it be known he was the first to say world leaders would have to throw trillions of dollars into the pot to fight off depression.
That amounted to a small revolution for many at the IMF, which is hated in many countries, such as Argentina, for ordering stringent austerity programmes in return for its rescue loans.
In France, Strauss-Kahn was the architect of the economic policy that helped sweep the Socialists to power in 1997.