By Catherine Bremer
PARIS (Reuters) - Months of lurid media coverage about Dominique Strauss-Kahn's 9-minute encounter with a New York hotel maid and other sexual affairs make it hard to imagine the former IMF chief taking a major public role in France in the near future.
The dismissal of the attempted rape and assault charges in New York on Tuesday -- sparing him a messy U.S. court battle and the risk of a long prison term -- was cheered in advance by his Socialist Party allies in France.
Yet it is too late for him to enter the 2012 French presidential race that he was once pegged to win, and he may be too politically radioactive to take a role in the left's campaign or to hold a government post should it win the April election.
Strauss-Kahn's chief problem is that many everyday French people now feel they know too much tawdry detail about his private life to want him as a leader, and many were unaware how highly valued is his economic expertise around the world to put aside the sex scandal.
An opinion poll by Ipsos carried out on August 19-20 found only 28 percent of respondents had a positive opinion of Strauss-Kahn, down from 32 percent in July, and 61 percent had an unfavorable view of him, up from 57 percent in July.
In Paris, dinner parties are now spiced up with tales of Strauss-Kahn's extramarital sex life. True or not, they have made him an object of ridicule.
Cartoons poking fun at the affair have spread like wildfire by email. A You Tube clip doing the rounds showed the scandal has made it onto a snack food advert in Greece, featuring a Strauss-Kahn look-a-like making salacious gestures to a maid.
"What I think has become his biggest handicap, because it's insurmountable, is that whereas before he was a person who was reassuring for the French, he now has the image of a fragile man and someone who could be a concern for voters," said Gattegno.
Strauss-Kahn may opt to bypass politics altogether and seek an international role in helping resolve global economic problems and the sovereign debt crisis that threatens to engulf Europe.
On Tuesday, he looked emotionally drained as he told the media outside his New York townhouse that he was looking forward to coming home to France and "resuming something of a more normal life" after settling some U.S. affairs.
"The big unknown today is whether he will be permanently damaged by this affair, and even he can't know that," said Herve Gattegno, editor of French current affairs weekly Le Point.
"The shock is still huge and there is obviously a moral judgment by the French people that is unavoidable, the negative view of this kind of behavior is going to count against him."
His lawyer acknowledged outside the New York court on Tuesday that Strauss-Kahn had engaged in "inappropriate behavior" in his luxury suite at the Sofitel Hotel in Manhattan on May 14. But he said it was not a crime, nor did it justify hauling him off a plane and throwing him into the city's most notorious jail.
Socialist presidential hopeful Manuel Valls said the whole affair had been "an extreme waste for Strauss-Kahn and France" and even ruling party Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said the former finance minister had "deserved better."
Frontrunner for the Socialists Francois Hollande has suggested that a man of his expertise may find a future role in government.
Given an inevitable media circus if he returns to Paris in coming days, it was unclear whether Strauss-Kahn would keep a low profile, speak in public or try to turn the page with a televised interview focused on global economic issues.
Socialists urged him to bring his ideas to the debate over how to stem the latest bout of economic malaise.
"Today we need Strauss-Kahn's voice. His voice has been absent from the political debate for much too long. Lots of French people, lots of Europeans, are waiting for his words," said left-wing ally and lawmaker Jean-Marie Le Guen.
But an editorial in the influential center-right daily Le Monde was damning, noting Strauss-Kahn had neither been declared "not guilty" nor truly cleared of the allegations that lost him his IMF job and his chance at the 2012 election.
"Like most French political men, he thought he was protected by our solid tradition of respecting private lives," it said.
"The media circus undoubtedly played a major role in DSK's downfall ... But at the end of the day, the crux of the matter lies with Strauss-Kahn himself. Like with Bill Clinton, whose presidency was (seriously damaged) by the Monica Lewinksy affair, he is above all the victim of his own carelessness."
Christophe Barbier, editor of L'Express weekly and a daily political interviewer on LCI TV, said Strauss-Kahn could make his comeback on the ground in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles where he used to be mayor, or at a different level via his competence as an international economist.
"The problem is that, as we say in France, he is carrying a saucepan: whenever he moves it will make a noise," he said.
"The French may feel that even if innocent of the charges, his behavior makes him unworthy of representing France. His behavior may have destroyed his intellectual merits. As soon as he speaks, the polls will show if they forgive him or not."
Ipsos analyst Brice Teinturier noted that while most voters say they don't want to see him in a government post, that could change within a year, especially if the left wins the election.
The Socialists gather this weekend in the seaside town of La Rochelle for their annual congress and are unlikely to want the event to be hijacked by talk of Strauss-Kahn's return.
They may be wary of getting too close to him while other legal cases are unresolved, including a civil case brought by hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo and an inquiry in France over allegations by writer Tristane Banon of an attempted assault.
Banon's lawyer David Koubbi said the support for DSK from Socialists were "crassly indecent", and Banon's mother Anne Mansouret, who herself had a brief affair with Strauss-Kahn, said she was "deeply indignant" at the U.S. charges against him collapsing.
(Additional reporting by John Irish)