By Gérard Bon and Alexandria Sage
PARIS (Reuters) - Former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn will be tried in France on pimping charges, prosecutors said on Friday, after a long inquiry into sex parties attended by the man whose presidential hopes were dashed by a separate 2011 U.S. sex scandal.
Investigating judges in the case determined that Strauss-Kahn, 64, should be judged by a criminal court over allegations he was complicit in a pimping operation involving prostitutes at the Carlton hotel in the northern city of Lille.
The decision was a surprise after a public prosecutor recommended in June that the inquiry be dropped without trial and it will thrust Strauss-Kahn's private life back into the spotlight just as he was putting the U.S. scandal behind him.
His lawyers said there were no legal grounds to try him and he was being targeted because of his notoriety after a New York hotel maid's charge, later dropped, that he sexually assaulted her in his suite in May 2011 when he was International Monetary Fund chief.
"No offence has been found to exist. So there can be no conviction in this affair," Frederique Baulieu, one of his lawyers, told BFM TV. "We should be focused on the law, not morality. Sadly, in this affair, investigating magistrates have been led astray by morality."
Under French law, pimping is a broad crime that encompasses aiding or encouraging prostitution.
Because the parties allegedly involved several prostitutes, Strauss-Kahn will stand trial in Lille on the more serious charge of "aggravated pimping", which carries a maximum term of 10 years in prison and a 1.5 million euros ($2 million) fine.
The former French finance minister has acknowledged attending sex parties in various cities but maintains he was unaware the women taking part were paid sex workers. He has said he is being hounded unfairly over his lifestyle in a country where frequenting prostitutes is not illegal.
"We're not in the realm of the law, we're in ideology. We're sending someone to court for nothing," Henri Leclerc, another of his lawyers, told Reuters.
"DSK" ON HOTEL BILLS
Strauss-Kahn went from being a pillar of the global economic elite to a disgraced rape suspect paraded before TV cameras, unshaven and in handcuffs, in a matter of hours after New York police pulled him off an airplane and briefly held him in jail.
He quit his IMF post and gave up his aspirations of running for the Socialist Party in the May 2012 presidential election.
The maid eventually dropped her charges and received a settlement from Strauss-Kahn, but on his return to France he was dogged with other allegations of sexual misconduct. The affair set off a soul-searching debate over why French media have often turned a blind eye to lewd and illegal behavior by politicians.
Investigators learned of Strauss-Kahn's involvement in the Lille sex parties after the initials "DSK" by which he is widely known in France were spotted on bills for hotels and plane tickets paid for by construction company Eiffage.
He was placed under formal investigation in 2012 and kept a low profile, quietly separating from his wife and rebuilding his life as a consultant and international conference speaker.
Earlier this month, Strauss-Kahn used an interview with CNN to wave away the New York case as a private matter and focused on discussing the failings of Europe's leaders in pulling the euro zone out of economic crisis.
He acknowledged, however, that his political career was over.
Thirteen other people under formal investigation in the Lille case will also be tried, some facing additional charges of fraud and abuse of corporate funds, the prosecutor said.
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(Additional reporting by Chine Labbe; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)