PARIS (Reuters) - Sex charges against the man tipped to be France's next president have thrown open the 2012 election, improving Nicolas Sarkozy's chances of winning a second term and leaving the left scrambling for a new star candidate.
Even if Dominique Strauss-Kahn is eventually cleared of charges that include attempted rape, few believe he can now run as the Socialist Party's candidate in an April election the left is determined to win after 16 years in opposition.
His removal from the field would be a boon for conservative Sarkozy, whose ratings are so bad that polls show he risks being knocked out in the first round of voting.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who polls to date had pegged to come second behind Strauss-Kahn in a first round vote, also stands to benefit given her long-running complaint about French politics as an elitist boys' club.
The Socialists, who have no other candidate to match Strauss-Kahn, vowed to press on with their primary selection process but convened a party meeting on the crisis on Tuesday.
"It is the first time a judicial affair has such an impact on the presidential election," analyst Frederic Daby of pollster IFOP told Reuters television. "It's unprecedented in France's political history."
France was mesmerised on Monday by TV images of Strauss-Kahn, a centre-left former finance minister and managing director of the IMF, being led away in handcuffs by police for DNA tests over the alleged assault on a maid in a New York hotel.
Without Strauss-Kahn, the Socialists' strongest candidate could be former party boss Francois Hollande, although he lacks frontline experience as he has never been a government minister.
French i<Tele TV commentator Michael Darmon said current party chief Martine Aubry was "not ready" to throw her hat in, though others could join the race.
ALLIES STAND BY "DSK"
Polls had predicted Sarkozy coming in third in an election first round, a point or two behind Le Pen, and then Strauss-Kahn easily beating the National Front leader in a runoff. An IFOP poll published on Sunday suggested that Hollande would draw with Le Pen in a first round, with Sarkozy just behind.
"Only one person has said 'I am ready psychologically', since 2008, and that is Francois Hollande," Darmon said. But he added: "There are others who could come out of the woodwork and make themselves heard, like Laurent Fabius for example."
Fabius, a former prime minister and finance minister, said at the weekend the party was losing touch with working class voters, possibly testing the waters for an election bid.
Strauss-Kahn's lawyers have said he will plead not guilty to charges he tried to rape a chambermaid after chasing her, naked, down a corridor and shutting her in a room. His wife and allies stood by him.
"Those close to him cannot believe he is guilty, and he will soon be back with us," his Socialist Party ally Jean-Christophe Cambadelis told reporters, adding that there were contradictory accounts of what happened and foul play could not be ruled out.
He said, without elaborating, that enemies had "promised a nuclear attack" should Strauss-Kahn declare a presidential bid.
Strauss-Kahn's woes deepened in France on Monday when a lawyer said his client, a writer, might file a legal complaint against him over an alleged sexual assault almost a decade ago.
"We are considering filing a complaint," lawyer David Koubbi said in a text message to Reuters, referring to an alleged incident that took place when the woman went to interview Strauss-Kahn in an empty apartment in 2002.
The left-leaning daily Liberation fuelled the scandal by publishing comments Strauss-Kahn made in late April when he said the three most difficult issues for his presidential bid would be: "Money, women and my Jewishness."
"Yes I like women ... So what? ... For years there's been talk of photos of massive orgies, but nothing has ever come out .... So, let them show them," the paper quoted him as saying.
In the working class suburb of Sarcelles north of Paris where Strauss-Kahn was mayor in the 1990s, residents expressed shock and disbelief.
"It think it's strange. A maid? Even if he likes women, there are lots of men who like women who don't do that," said retired engineer Serge Guyon. "It doesn't seem like him. He was a very courteous gentleman."
Even before his arrest, Strauss-Kahn was the subject of mounting media criticism that accused him of a fondness for women, an easy relationship with money and a luxury lifestyle that sat uneasily with his Socialist credentials.
Politicians from all parties said Strauss-Kahn, popularly known by his initials DSK, should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, but political commentators were unanimous in pronouncing the last rites on his political career.
"One thing is certain: Dominique Strauss-Kahn will not be the next president of the French republic," the conservative daily Le Figaro said in an editorial.
Liberation front page headline read simply: "DSK Out."
Socialist Party spokesman Benoit Hamon said the party would press on with preparing its October election primary, with the line-up to be declared by July. He said that despite the shock for the left, Strauss-Kahn should be considered innocent for now.
"As a party we are clearly concerned by it and are dealing with it, but the Socialist Party's aim is intact, it's to beat Nicolas Sarkozy and we will not abandon that," he said.
Even with Strauss-Kahn out of the race, Sarkozy will have his work cut out winning back droves of voters who are shunning him in polls, angry at unfulfilled campaign promises, a drop in purchasing power and tension over immigrants.
(Editing by Jon Boyle and Mark Trevelyan)