IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was charged with attempting to rape a New York hotel maid, in a scandal that appeared to wreck his hopes of running for president of France and to open questions over his leadership of the global lender.

The charges on Sunday threatened to create a leadership vacuum at the IMF, overseer of the global economy, and threw wide open the French presidential election next April, for which opinion polls had made Strauss-Kahn the front-runner.

The 62-year-old Socialist, a key player in the response to the 2007-09 global financial crisis and to Europe's debt woes, was taken off an Air France plane minutes before it left for Paris from John F Kennedy International Airport on Saturday.

A hotel maid, 32, alleged Strauss-Kahn sexually assaulted her in his $3,000-a-night suite at the upscale Sofitel in Times Square on Saturday, police spokesman Paul Browne said. The IMF chief was charged with a criminal sexual act, unlawful imprisonment and attempted rape.

"She told detectives he came out of the bathroom naked, ran down a hallway to the foyer where she was, pulled her into a bedroom and began to sexually assault her, according to her account," Browne told Reuters.

"She pulled away from him and he dragged her down a hallway into the bathroom where he engaged in a criminal sexual act, according to her account to detectives. He tried to lock her into the hotel room."

Strauss-Kahn is expected to go before a state court later on Sunday. One of his lawyers, Benjamin Brafman, told Reuters his client "will plead not guilty."

Browne said the head of the International Monetary Fund does not have diplomatic immunity and appeared to have fled the hotel after the incident, leaving his cell phone behind.

The arrest caused shock and disbelief in France.

"The news we received from New York last night struck like a thunderbolt," said Socialist leader Martine Aubry, appealing for party unity.

Francois Bayrou, a centrist opponent of Strauss-Kahn, said: "All this is completely astounding, immensely troubling and distressing. If the facts prove true ... it's something degrading for all women. It's terrible for France's image."

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen said her rival's presidential hopes had been crushed. Strauss-Kahn and Le Pen have led recent opinion polls ahead of conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, even though the IMF chief had yet to declare his candidacy.

In a statement, the Fund declined to comment on the case, saying only that it "remains fully functioning and operational."

Greek officials said the arrest would not affect the country's fiscal reforms but could cause some short-term delays in discussions over the EU/IMF bailout, in which Strauss-Kahn was involved.

Germany's finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said a meeting on Monday to discuss the euro zone's bailout plans would move ahead as scheduled.

The IMF said its No. 2 official, John Lipsky, would step in as acting chief and it named another official to attend Monday's meeting in Brussels.

WARNINGS OF "MEDIA CIRCUS"

Strauss-Kahn's wife Anne Sinclair, a celebrity in her own right as a former television interviewer, appealed for "restraint and decency."

"I do not believe for a single second the accusations leveled against my husband," she said in a statement. "I do not doubt his innocence will be established."