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It was, as one senior French politician said, "a thunderclap." The politics of France and the future of the world economy were turned upside down as New York police escorted presidential hopeful and International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn from an airplane and charged him with sexual assault.

Suddenly, the man most responsible for regulating and reforming the world's monetary and economic systems, and the man considered the most likely left-wing contender to replace Nicolas Sarkozy as president of France in next year's elections, has been reduced to a prisoner in a Harlem police cell, held on grave charges of attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment after he was accused of forcing himself upon a maid and fleeing a Times Square luxury hotel.

In France, the arrest caused a cataclysmic reaction. Even if Mr. Strauss-Kahn, 62, is able to defend himself against the charges and prove himself innocent, it will be almost impossible to repair his career in politics and economics - in large part because accusations of sexual indiscretion have long dogged him.

"He won't be able to be a candidate for the Socialist primary for the presidency, and he won't be able to stay at the IMF," said Jacques Attali, a senior figure in Mr. Strauss-Kahn's Socialist Party, commenting on the party's primary elections slated to begin next month.

A New York Police Department spokesman said on Sunday that Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who had been staying at a $3,000-a-night suite at the Sofitel hotel, emerged Saturday from his bathroom naked, chased a 32-year-old chambermaid down a hall, forced her down on a bed, locked her into his suite, and then made her perform oral sex upon him in the bathroom while trying to remove her clothes.

He's then alleged to have fled the room, leaving his cellphone and other effects behind, and boarded the first-class cabin of an Air France flight to Paris. Minutes before the flight was due to depart, New York police escorted him off the plane. His lawyer said he denies all the accusations and he will plead not guilty to all charges.

The charges represent a political tragedy for the French left, for whom Mr. Strauss-Kahn, a reform-oriented moderate with the sort of international profile that is admired in France, was virtually the only candidate capable of rivalling Mr. Sarkozy in the polls.

It also means the loss of a figure who had made great strides to move the IMF away from the harsh economic orthodoxy and began to turn it into an institution more inclusive of developing countries and their concerns.

France's newspapers reported that Mr. Strauss-Kahn had been " rattrapé à la culotte" - caught with his pants down. Paris observers have warned for years that sexual impropriety was his Achilles' heel. "Among journalists, at least in France, Mr. Strauss-Kahn has long had the reputation of jumping on anything that moves," said Lorraine Millot, a Washington-based correspondent with the Paris newspaper Liberation. "But he is not the only French politician with this problem, so we have avoided excessively highlighting this aspect of his personality."

Indeed, shortly after Mr. Strauss-Kahn was appointed to his IMF post, political blogger Jean Quatremer warned that his "only problem" could be "the way he relates to women."

Earlier in 2007, the novelist Tristane Banon said in a TV interview that a politician, who she later identified as Mr. Strauss-Kahn, had forced himself upon her during a journalistic interview in 2002: "I clearly told him 'no, no,'" she said, "we fought on the ground, he slapped me, I kicked him, he undid my bra and tried to undo my jeans."

The next year, the IMF's board investigated a sexual affair he had with a young subordinate shortly after assuming office. The board found "no harassment, no favouritism or any other abuse of power," but Mr. Strauss-Kahn acknowledged that he had made "a miscalculation."

That event did not apparently harm his marriage to Anne Sinclair, his fourth wife, and on Sunday she said she did not believe the New York accusations and believed that his innocence would be established.

Indeed, the latest sex scandal is so embarrassing and occurred so close to the beginning of the Socialist Party primaries that even by Mr. Strauss-Kahn's political opponents were among those who suggested it may have been a trap designed to exploit Mr. Strauss-Kahn's greatest weakness.

"We cannot rule out the thought of a trap," said Henri de Raincourt, who was the Senate chairman of Mr. Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement party and is currently a government cabinet minister. "I note that this has happened just after the affair of the car and the suit in a short space of time."

He was referring Mr. Strauss-Kahn's penchant for rich living that seemed at odds with his socialist principles: It was revealed this year that he drives a luxury Porsche and buys hand-tailored suits that cost at least $7,000 each.

Those fripperies, and even a penchant for skirt-chasing, are sometimes considered lovable attributes by French voters - but Saturday's charges would be far harder to shrug off.