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French suspect conspiracy

world Updated: May 19, 2011 01:32 IST

International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest on sex assault charges has gripped France, dominating conversation from the family dinner table to the school yard and inspiring a wave of conspiracy theories.

As the man pollsters once saw as most likely to defeat Nicolas Sarkozy in next year's presidential election languishes in New York's Rikers Island prison, his compatriots are struggling to interpret his spectacular fall.

According to an opinion poll conducted by the CSA institute for the Paris daily 20 Minutes, fully 57 per cent of voters believe that Strauss-Kahn, known as DSK, is the victim of some kind of machination designed to halt his career.

"France is flummoxed," political scientist Stephane Rozes told AFP. "The gap between DSK's current role and presidential hopes and the gravity of his situation is shocking."

The French have been forced to decide whether there was some kind of behind-the-scenes plot or if their former finance minister is mentally unwell.

"Both ideas are unsettling," Rozes said, adding that, while a conspiracy appeared "incredible", madness would be "shocking".

The image of one of their most respected politicians paraded in handcuffs by NYPD detectives disturbed many in France, where justice is largely dispensed behind closed doors, and contributed to a wave of emotion.

"The French know these pictures are being seen around the world. They were proud of DSK, whose work as head of the IMF has been praised, then all of a sudden they're watching a bad US cop show. The effect is unreal," Rozes said.

On the streets of Paris, passers-by agreed.

"It's stupefying to imagine a man in his position is capable of attacking a chamber maid in a 3,000-dollar-a-night suite," 49-year-old engineer Pierre Vidalenc told AFP in central Paris's business district.

The alleged victim, named by some French media in violation of the anonymity she enjoys in the US and British press, has not been heard, so debate has focused on the boost DSK's fall will give Sarkozy's re-election bid.

Even DSK's supporters accept he had a busy sex life, but many have difficulty accepting an image of the 62-year-old married economist as a violent predator, launching a naked assault on a stranger half his age.