By Paul Taylor
PARIS (Reuters) - France is caught between denial, rage and grief at the fall of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, with many gutted Socialist supporters clutching at conspiracy theories over the IMF chief's arrest for alleged attempted rape.
An opinion poll taken the day after the French learned that the frontrunner in next year's presidential election was in a New York police cell, charged with sexually assaulting a hotel maid, showed 57 percent thought he was the victim of a plot.
Among Socialists, that number rose to 70 percent.
"The French people did not want it to be true, even more so in the case of Socialist sympathizers," Gerald Bronner, a Strasbourg University sociologist specialized in popular beliefs, told the newspaper Le Monde.
Strauss-Kahn denies the charges. If he is innocent, as he declared in his letter of resignation to the board of the International Monetary Fund, then there has to be some other hidden explanation.
Because the allegations seemed so incredible, many in France instinctively ascribed his arrest to American puritan zeal or to some "honey trap" set by profiteers or political enemies for the charismatic former finance minister, an avowed ladies' man.
As in the case of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, the Internet and social networks provided an echo chamber for conspiracy theories eschewed by mainstream media.
Socialists who have been out of power since 2002 and have not won a presidential election since 1988 were stunned to see their best hope of ousting conservative Nicolas Sarkozy implode just weeks before he had been expected to declare his candidacy.
"Yes we Kahn" T-shirts were already being printed and advance teams were working on policy papers.
"It's as if the sky had fallen in. Of course, people are tempted to question the timing and ask who had an interest in this," said a Socialist official, who asked not to be identified because of orders from party leaders not to discuss the matter. Philosopher and activist Bernard-Henri Levy, a friend of Strauss-Kahn, noted that the hotel room number where the alleged assault took place was 2806 -- corresponding to the June 28 date of the opening of registration for a Socialist party primary.
STAGES OF GRIEF
The French appear to be working their way through the five stages of grief defined by the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
First came denial.
Strauss-Kahn's closest political lieutenants may have lent credence to the notion of a set-up with sound-alike statements that the allegations did not correspond to "the man I know."
Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, his unofficial campaign manager, said ominously that Strauss-Kahn had been threatened with "nuclear fire" if he ran for president. He did not say by whom.
Levy said it was "absurd" to think that the charmer of women whom he had known for 20 years was "this monster, this caveman, this insatiable and malevolent beast."
At first, only a couple of fringe politicians said publicly that the IMF chief might be the victim of a machination.
"It could come from the IMF, it could come from the French right, from the French left," said centrist former minister Christine Boutin, leader of a small Christian Democratic party.
But a senior Socialist politician weighed in on Friday.
Claude Bartolone told RTL radio Strauss-Kahn had told him on April 29 that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was trying to push him out of the IMF before his planned departure to run for the presidency. He cited no reason.
"Watch out for Putin," Bartolone quoted Strauss-Kahn as having said.
As far as bargaining is concerned, some Strauss-Kahn supporters have latched on to his defense attorney's suggestion that the IMF chief did not flee and the evidence was not consistent with a "forcible encounter."
Then came anger.
Senior Socialists and media commentators vented their fury at the public parading of Strauss-Kahn, handcuffed and unshaven, by U.S. law enforcement officers, accusing them of trampling on his right to be presumed innocent.
Former culture minister Jack Lang called it a "lynching."
The judge's initial refusal to grant the IMF chief bail also drew incredulity in France, where few could imagine that such a senior financial statesman could be considered a "flight risk."
Yet French magistrates routinely keep suspects, including VIPs, in pre-trial custody for extended periods even when the charges do not involve violence, in what defense lawyers say is a routine tactic to extract confessions.
French politicians saw no parallel with the case of film director Roman Polanski, whom the French shielded for three decades from extradition to the United States to face sentencing for having drugged and had sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.
Polanski's lawyers say he served a jail term before he fled Los Angeles in 1978 and the victim has long asked for the case to be dropped.
"In some ways, I suspect Strauss-Kahn is paying for the Polanski affair," said Robert Menard, a commentator and former head of the media watchdog Reporters without Borders.
After days of denial and anger, there are some signs that the French response may be turning to depression.
Party leader Martine Aubry was reported by participants to have burst into tears briefly during an emergency meeting of Socialist leaders on Tuesday to discuss the Strauss-Kahn affair.
"I am in mourning for my candidate," said the Socialist party official.
But as Kuebler-Ross noted, the stages of grief do not always occur in the same sequence and are sometimes jumbled together.
The French political class may be coming to terms with the lack of any evidence of a conspiracy, but out in the grassroots, many people are sticking to their suspicions.
"Trickery, trickery, trickery!" exclaimed Yannick, a construction worker in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles, where Strauss-Kahn once was mayor.
"It's obvious! 85 percent of people around here say that!"
(Additional reporting by Alexandria Sage and Thierry Leveque)