Jul (Reuters) - By Leila Abboud
PARIS, July 3 (Reuters) - The head of France's Socialists urged calm in the party on Sunday as speculation over the political future of former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn grew, threatening preparations for the left's 2012 challenge to President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The Socialists, who saw Strauss-Kahn as their best chance of regaining power after years in opposition until he was arrested on attempted rape charges in May, were thrown into disarray on Friday when U.S. prosecutors raised doubts about the credibility of the hotel maid who alleged he attacked her.
The development opened the prospect he could be freed and return to the political arena ahead of the election.
Some of Strauss-Kahn's allies have called for him to return to political life, and for party leaders to delay a July 13 primary registration deadline.
Comments by two Socialist members of parliament highlighted the growing tension within party ranks and the inclination of some to conspiracy theories over Strauss-Kahn's arrest.
The Accor hotels group, which owns the Sofitel where the alleged rape occurred, released a statement on Sunday denying remarks by lawmaker Francois Loncle suggesting "connections between the company and maybe some French interests."
Amid the tumult, Harlem Desir, who took over as party head on Thursday after his predeccessor Martine Aubry stepped down to run for president, called for calm.
"If there is one lesson we've learned from this affair, it is not to speak before all the facts are known," said Desir in a television interview.
"I want Dominique to be cleared, reestablish his honor and return to Paris to be by our sides... All Socialists should be happy about this."
A judge released Strauss-Kahn from house arrest and lifted strict bail conditions on Friday after prosecutors discovered a pattern of lying in the accuser's background, but the sexual assault charges remain in place.
Before his arrest on May 14, Strauss-Kahn had been widely expected to challenge Sarkozy in 2012 and polls showed him to be the most popular among the Socialist contenders.
It is not yet clear that Strauss-Kahn would want to return to the campaign trail if he is eventually cleared. Some political analysts have questioned whether he would still be serious contender after the revelations about his philandering and luxury lifestyle.
But the Socialist Party, which has not coalesced around a leader a year ahead of the presidential elections, is not likely to reject a return of Strauss-Kahn to the fold.
"It's Dominique Strauss-Kahn who will decide himself how he wants to participate in public life when he is able to," Desir said. "No one has the intention to prevent someone, no matter who it is, from being a candidate."
Two rival candidates for the nomination Francois Hollande and Segolene Royal, also said they would not object to modifying the calendar.
But Royal, who lost the 2007 presidential contest to Sarkozy, sounded a note of caution: "Until Dominique Strauss-Kahn himself asks for the calendar to be changed, any decision on this issue would be premature."
Aubry, the mayor of northern city Lille who recently stepped down as Socialist Party head to run for president, also called for patience in television interview on Sunday night.
"Let's give Dominique time to breath and let's not anticipate too far in advance," she said in a television interview. "He's been though hell and will need to rebuild himself."
A Harris Interactive poll of 1,000 French people aged 18 and over released on Sunday showed the French to be somewhat divided over Strauss-Kahn's possible return. Among the general public, 49 percent want Strauss-Kahn to return to the French political scene, compared with 60 percent of leftists.
But only roughly half of those on the left and 43 percent of the general public said the Socialist Party should postpone its July 13 primary registration deadline.
(Additional reporting by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Ralph Boulton)