French minister resigns as sex assault inquiry opens

A MINISTER accused of sexually assaulting two women he once worked with resigned yesterday, in an apparent attempt to spare the French government the kind of notoriety the opposition has faced since one of its leading figures, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was charged with the alleged rape of a Manhattan hotel maid.

A preliminary investigation was opened last week against George Tron, who served as a junior civil service minister, after two women alleged he had attacked them between 2007 and 2010.

One of the women said she was inspired to come forward after a housekeeper at a luxury Manhattan hotel claimed she was sexually assaulted by Strauss-Kahn, 62, a leading presidential hopeful in next year's elections for the rival Socialist Party. He resigned his post as International Monetary Fund chief after charges were filed in New York.

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Mr Tron, 53, is a member of president Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative UMP party who joined the government just over a year ago. His resignation appeared to be damage control as Mr Sarkozy burnishes his image for a likely re-election bid in the presidential race in a year's time. The popular Strauss-Kahn had been expected to run as the Socialist candidate for president.

Both Mr Tron and Strauss-Kahn deny any wrongdoing.

No replacement for Mr Tron was immediately announced, though it was widely reported that budget minister Francois Baroin would absorb Mr Tron's functions.

Mr Tron's lawyer, Olivier Schnerb, has said the allegations against him are "unjust" and he has received instructions from his client to sue the women for "malicious slander".

He claims the women were both fired from their jobs at the town hall of Draveil, south of Paris - where Mr Tron has been mayor since 1995 - suggesting they had a personal vendetta.

A preliminary investigation for rape and sexual assault was opened on Wednesday. Prosecutors will then decide whether to pursue or drop the case.

The two women, aged 34 and 36, have claimed that foot massages administered by Mr Tron evolved into assault. He is adept at foot reflexology, an alternative medicine based on the notion that zones of the foot correspond to certain body parts and pressure on those points can promote health.

The women told a newspaper that Tron assaulted them behind locked doors at the town hall.

One woman said she was too ashamed to tell anyone at first, but that she spoke out after the charges were brought in New York against Strauss-Kahn.

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She said: "Other women may be suffering what I suffered. I have to help them. We have to break this code of silence."