A young French author has formally accused former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn of attempted rape, breaking her long public silence with a dramatic account of fending off an attacker who ripped at her clothes as they fought on his apartment floor.
Tristane Banon's criminal complaint, which was filed Tuesday, was already spawning an ugly public battle that appeared to be dividing France and follows trans-Atlantic mudslinging over the Guinean chambermaid who accused Strauss-Kahn of forcing her to perform oral sex in his New York hotel room.
The sudden weakening of the maid's case because of New York prosecutors' doubts about her credibility revived hopes in Strauss-Kahn's Socialist Party that he could return to France and retake his position as the strongest potential challenger to conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2012 election.
Those hopes could be undermined by the 31-year-old writer's legal action, which is expected to set off a lengthy preliminary investigation by prosecutors into whether there is enough evidence to pursue a case in France.
While many here saw Strauss-Kahn, 62, as a victim of rough U.S. justice, the French public may recoil at a drawn-out case in French courts brought by a woman whose mother is a Socialist Party official. Polls already have found French voters evenly divided over whether they want Strauss-Kahn to return, with women more likely to object to his reviving a political career.
A poll of 860 people conducted over the weekend by the magazine Nouvel Observateur found that 54 percent didn't want Strauss-Kahn to run in the Socialist Party primary, and 63 percent didn't believe that he would end up running.
"He grabbed my hand, then my arm, I told him to let me go and that's when the fight started. He pulled me towards him, we fell down and fought on the ground for a few minutes," Banon told the news magazine L'Express.
She said she started kicking him with her boots, then finally broke free, ran down the stairs and called her mother from her car.
"I couldn't even drive I was trembling so much," she said. The Associated Press does not name alleged victims of sexual crimes unless, like Banon, they choose to publicly identify themselves.
Strauss-Kahn allies took to the airwaves Tuesday to try to undermine Banon and question the timing of her complaint about an incident that she says took place in 2003, when she was trying to interview Strauss-Kahn for a book project. Banon first recounted the incident on a 2007 TV show in which Strauss-Kahn's name was edited out.
Her lawyer began discussing the possibility of bringing charges after Strauss-Kahn's May 14 arrest in New York, but Banon still said very little.
"Tristane Banon has been telling her story for months and years. She's filing her complaint today," Socialist lawmaker Jean-Marie Le Guen told reporters. "In that, I see a certain opportunism that I associate with this mudslinging, these disinformation campaigns against Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the moment when American justice is about to acknowledge his innocence."
Strauss-Kahn's lawyers on Monday labeled Banon's account "imaginary" and said they would file a criminal complaint of slander against her.
Banon told L'Express that she was tired of hearing "lies and rumors" told about the incident.
"I can't take it anymore hearing that I must be lying because I haven't filed suit," Banon said.
Strauss-Kahn was freed from house arrest, without bail, on Friday after New York prosecutors acknowledged they had discovered problems with the credibility of the Guinean hotel maid who accused him of sexual assault. But the charges of attempted rape and other crimes still stand.
In a further twist to the saga, his New York accuser filed a libel suit Tuesday against the New York Post after the newspaper called her a prostitute.
Banon said she had waited eight years before filing her complaint because "it's very difficult for any woman in this situation ... and it's even more difficult when you know in advance that it's doomed to failure."
Banon said she described some of the attack in an "autobiographical novel" she published in 2006 called "The Trapeze Artist."
"I left out some sordid details, about his fingers in my mouth, his hands in my underwear after he ripped off my jeans and my bra," Banon said.
Lawyer David Koubbi said Banon had been dissuaded from filing charges after the incident by her mother, Anne Mansouret, a regional councilor in Strauss-Kahn's Socialist Party. Mansouret now says she regrets urging her daughter not to file a complaint but she feared that taking action against such a powerful figure would affect her daughter's career.
Mansouret told the French radio station RTL that her daughter "considers the only way to end this is in fact to file a complaint, to say that at least justice can be done."
"She's a young woman who's matured," Mansouret told RTL. "She took this decision, I suppose, after maturely reflecting."
Mansouret said she thought that by filing the complaint, it would help her daughter "rebuild herself."
"She tried to move ahead without doing that, and it wasn't possible. She arrived at a level of suffering. It's suffering to be permanently harassed by people who criticize how you've acted," Mansouret said.
If Banon's complaint leads to preliminary charges, there will then be a lengthier investigation, sometimes lasting years, to determine if the case should go to trial before a judge.
The same process would apply to the slander complaint against Banon.
A slander charge can be brought against anyone who French prosecutors believe deliberately filed a false complaint with authorities. In Banon's case, an investigation would begin only if her attempted rape complaint is found to be false. A slander charge carries a maximum term of five years in a prison and a 45,000-euro ($65,000) fine.
French prosecutors could decide not to pursue the case against Strauss-Kahn if they find evidence he engaged in forcible sexual contact that fell short of attempted rape. The statute of limitations on sexual assault charges in France is three years, while attempted rape charges can be filed for up to 10 years after the alleged crime.
Strauss-Kahn has relinquished his passport to New York authorities. His next court appearance is July 18.
Cecile Brisson and Greg Keller contributed.
(This version CORRECTS Replaces 16th paragraph to delete incorrect reference to Strauss-Kahn being free on bail in 16th paragraph; clarifies that he was freed from house arrest, without bail. An interactive about ex-IMF leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the attempted rape allegations against him, will be updated with information on a French author who has filed a sexual assault complaint against him. This story is part of AP's general news and financial services.)