PARIS — The arrest in New York of one of France’s leading global figures and a possible next president, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, on charges of attempted rape produced an earthquake of shock, outrage, disbelief and embarrassment throughout France on Sunday.
The country woke up to the tawdry allegations that Mr. Strauss-Kahn, 62, a leading Socialist and the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, had waylaid and tried to rape a maid in a $3,000-a-night suite at a New York hotel, and the reverberations were immediate.
The government of President Nicolas Sarkozy responded cautiously, saying the presumption of innocence must be maintained and the courts must be allowed to do their work, while the leader of the Socialist Party, Martine Aubry, admitted that she was “totally stupefied” by the charges against the man who had been considered most likely to bring her party back to power in next year’s presidential elections by defeating Mr. Sarkozy.
Some, including Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s wife, the American-born French television journalist Anne Sinclair, expressed disbelief in the charges and faith in her husband’s innocence. His lawyer has said he would plead not guilty. Others talked darkly of a possible “setup” of Mr. Sarkozy’s most prominent rival.
But there was a general recognition that whatever the outcome — unless the police have made a horrible error — the arrest had exploded Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s political hopes, upended France’s political landscape and abruptly ended his career at the I.M.F., which is in the middle of crucial negotiations about loans for distressed nations of the European Union.
The impact of his arrest was likely to emerge dramatically on Monday at two meetings, one in Brussels where European finance ministers were gathering, and the other in Paris where the Socialist party scheduled an emergency conclave.
The I.M.F. quickly appointed an acting managing director on Sunday to replace Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who spent hours in a Manhattan holding cell awaiting arraignment, which was postponed until Monday after additional evidence was sought including DNA samples from his fingernails and skin.
As the impact of Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s predicament hit home, others, including some in the news media, began to reveal accounts, long suppressed or anonymous, of what they called Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s previously predatory behavior toward women and his aggressive sexual pursuit of them, from students and journalists to subordinates.
Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s extramarital affairs have long been considered an open secret. But the legal charges against him — which include attempted rape, an illegal sexual act and an effort to sequester another person against her will — are of an entirely different magnitude, even in France and elsewhere in continental Europe, where voters have generally shown more lenience than Americans toward the sexual behavior of prominent politicians, most notably the sexual escapades of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy.
“If the accusations turn out to be true — and even if they are proved false — this is a degrading thing,” said François Bayrou, a centrist who ran for the presidency in 2007.
The left-leaning newspaper Libération ran the headline “Shock. Political Bomb. Thunderclap.”
The deputy editor, Vincent Giret, wrote sadly on Sunday that Mr. Strauss-Kahn seemed “best-armed to respond to the disarray of the French, exhausted by the crisis and disoriented by the crazy reign of Sarkozy.” But Mr. Strauss-Kahn apparently believed he could win the presidency “without fighting,” Mr. Giret said, and so did not follow a path of “renunciation and abnegation.”
The entire French political world used superlatives to comment on Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s arrest. Dominique Paillé, the former spokesman of Mr. Sarkozy’s party, called it a “historical moment, in negative terms, in French politics.” Other Sarkozy supporters were predictably harsh.
The government spokesman, François Baroin, said that Mr. Strauss-Kahn should be afforded “the presumption of innocence.” The government, he told France 2 television, would “not go further in commentary about this matter” and called for “extraordinary prudence” in discussing the case.
Ms. Aubry, the Socialist leader, asked people to withhold judgment and called the emergency meeting of the party leadership on Monday. “I call upon everyone to wait for the reality of the facts, to respect the presumption of innocence, and then, upon everyone, to keep the necessary decency,” she said. Ségolène Royal, the last Socialist presidential candidate, who lost to Mr. Sarkozy, talked about “deeply distressing news” but said that anyone is innocent until proven otherwise.
Some of Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s allies said that he must have been the victim of a setup. Christine Boutin, head of the small Christian Democratic Party, told French television: “That he could be taken in like that seems astounding, so he must have been trapped.”
Gérard Grunberg, a respected political scientist who studies the left, said that Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s political future and career at the I.M.F. were over. “It’s a political earthquake and a catastrophe for France,” he said in an interview. The charges have disrupted “the future presidential election in France, and the entire political spectrum,” making it more likely that a centrist candidate would run.
The absence of Mr. Strauss-Kahn would help the candidacy of François Hollande, a former party leader, as Socialist nominee, and it might encourage Ms. Aubry herself to run; Ms. Royal had already announced her intention to seek the nomination.
If Mr. Strauss-Kahn does not run, that will not necessarily help the far-right National Front and its leader, Marine Le Pen, but it is likely to make Mr. Sarkozy more plausible as an incumbent. “It’s going to help him to hope a little more,” Mr. Grunberg said.
As for suggestions that Mr. Strauss-Kahn might have fallen into an elaborate sting, Mr. Grunberg was dismissive. “If all this was a trap, he wouldn’t have fled in a panic,” he said.
Mr. Strauss-Kahn was criticized by the I.M.F after an affair with a subordinate, an economist, Piroska Nagy, in 2008. But an investigation found that he had not abused his position, the affair was consensual, and he publicly expressed regret. Ms. Sinclair, his third wife, was supportive. “These things happen in the life of any couple,” she wrote.
On Sunday, Ms. Sinclair issued a statement saying: “I don’t believe for a second the accusations leveled against my husband.”
Despite the rumors, one of the few journalists to point to them when Mr. Strauss-Kahn was appointed to the fund was Jean Quatremer, the Brussels correspondent for Libération. He wrote on his blog that Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s “only real problem” was his “rapport” with women. “Too insistent, he often comes close to harassment,” he wrote. “A weakness known by the media, but which nobody mentions. (We are in France.) The I.M.F., however, is an international institution with Anglo-Saxon morals. A misplaced gesture, a too specific allusion, and it will be a media scramble.”
Mr. Strauss-Kahn behaved aggressively toward a young female journalist and novelist, Tristane Banon, in 2002, according to the newspaper Le Parisien and other Web sites, and corroborated by Ms. Banon herself in a 2007 television interview on Paris Première, a cable channel. At the time, she said that a French politician — whom she later said was Mr. Strauss-Kahn — had tried to rape her in an empty apartment in Paris after she had contacted him for a book she was writing.
“He wanted to grab my hand while answering my questions, and then my arm. We ended up fighting, since I said clearly, ‘No, no.’ We fought on the floor, I kicked him, he undid my bra, he tried to remove my jeans,” she said.
Afterward, she said that she had contacted a well-known lawyer who already had “a pile of files on Mr. Strauss-Kahn,” but that she never filed a complaint. “I didn’t dare; I didn’t wish to be the girl who had a problem with a politician for the rest of my life,” she said.
Her mother, Anne Mansouret, a Socialist, later confronted Mr. Strauss-Kahn and asked why he had attacked her daughter, she told Rue 89, an online newspaper. According to her, he responded: “I don’t know what happened, I went crazy.”
On Monday Ms. Banon's lawyer, David Koubbi, said his client may file a legal complaint against Mr. Strauss-Kahn after all, Reuters reported.
At the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, known as Sciences Po, where he was an economics professor, “he had a real power of attraction,” said a former student in an interview. “There were always hordes of female students waiting to talk to him at the end of his classes,” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Well before Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s arrest there had been reports that Mr. Sarkozy was gathering information to discredit Mr. Strauss-Kahn should he run for president. In a famous incident, reported by the news magazine Le Point, Mr. Strauss-Kahn confronted Mr. Sarkozy in the men’s room at the Group of 20 summit meeting in Pittsburgh in September 2009, saying: “I’ve had more than enough of this continued gossip about my private life and about supposed dossiers and photos that could come out against me. I know that this is coming from the Élysée. Tell your guys to stop or I’ll go to the courts.”