By Paul Taylor
SAINT-REMY-DE-PROVENCE, France (Reuters) - In the heart of France's "caviar left," there were mixed feelings on Friday about news that U.S. sexual assault charges against former Socialist presidential frontrunner Dominique Strauss-Kahn may collapse.
This Provencal town -- nestled amid olive groves and sunflower fields where Vincent Van Gogh painted and was buried, at the foot of the Alpilles hills -- is a favored retreat for well-heeled big names of the Socialist political family.
Critics brand them the "caviar left" because their lifestyle is so remote from the travails of ordinary working people.
Fashion magnate Pierre Berge, a friend and financier of Socialist candidates for 40 years, has a high-walled villa here. Left-of-center media barons, bankers and intellectuals rub shoulders in summer on the elegant cafe terraces.
The locals who groom their dogs, renovate their converted farmhouses and serve them salads beneath the plane trees were mostly relieved that Strauss-Kahn would be freed and that the prosecution case against him seems to be crumbling.
Strauss-Kahn was released from house arrest without bail on Friday after prosecutors developed doubts about the credibility of a New York hotel maid who accused him of trying to rape her in May.
"I don't think he's a bad guy," said mason Johann Bluhm, 33, who renovates stone houses. "I'm almost sure this was a set-up by some government or someone to frame him or blackmail him.
"I would have voted for him. He's always been good in government, He doesn't need the money. He could easily have afforded to pay a prostitute," Bluhm said.
At the "Beaute Canine" (Canine Beauty) poodle parlour, where two pristine white Maltese lapdogs awaited their loving owners, owner Cecile Ledroit was less convinced.
"I don't trust that guy," she said. "He won't convince us that he's completely whiter-than-white. He'd had previous issues with women journalists."
Ledroit said Strauss-Kahn and his wife Anne Sinclair, a former television presenter and millionaire heiress, were too rich and privileged to care about ordinary people's problems.
"He isn't really a man of the left," she said of the former International Monetary Fund chief.
Her comments highlighted what might have become a dividing line on the left and in public opinion if Strauss-Kahn had declared his candidacy to run against conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy in next year's election.
Many people have been shocked by the opulence of the townhouse which Strauss-Kahn's wife rented for him to live in under house arrest. The estimated $50,000 monthly rent is roughly 30 times the French minimum wage.
In an off-the-record conversation reported by the left-wing daily Liberation after his May 14 arrest in New York, the then IMF chief said the three biggest obstacles to his candidacy would be money, sex and his Jewishness.
Restaurant owner Jean Chetcuti, 57, who serves pancakes and salads on a beautiful central square in Saint Remy, said he was attracted to the theory put forward by some psychiatrists that Strauss-Kahn may have acted unconsciously because deep down, he did not want to run for president.
"He was being pushed by the others, including Anne Sinclair, but maybe he was secretly afraid of it," Chetcuti said.
Analysts see the chances of a cleared Strauss-Kahn being able to enter the race for the 2012 election as slim, given the stain that will still hang over him from the affair, although many expect he could gradually return to left-wing politics.
Many Socialist voters say Strauss-Kahn should be given a chance to make a comeback in French politics.
"The way the U.S. justice system treated him is a disgrace," said one lifelong Socialist voter and human rights activist, referring to the parading of the then IMF chief handcuffed and unshaven for photographers before he had appeared in court, and his incarceration because of concerns he might flee to France.
"If there was no rape, then his sex life is his own private matter. Consensual sex between adults is nobody else's business," she added.
(Editing by Catherine Bremer/Janet McBride)