PARIS (AP) - Dominique Strauss-Kahn returned home to a mixed welcome in France on Sunday, for the first time since attempted rape accusations by a New York hotel maid unleashed an international scandal that dashed his chances for the French presidency.
New York prosecutors later dropped their case against Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund, because of questions about the maid's credibility.
But the affair cost Strauss-Kahn his job at the helm of the IMF and exposed his personal life to worldwide scrutiny that has stained his image and left the French divided over what he should do next. His high-profile return home Sunday reflects how large he looms here.
Smiling and waving silently, he stepped off an Air France flight Sunday at Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport a different man from the one who, just four months ago, had been the pollsters' favorite to beat President Nicolas Sarkozy in next year's presidential elections.
Few expect Strauss-Kahn to return to French politics soon, but his supporters have been eagerly awaiting his return after three months of legal drama in the U.S. that they saw as unfairly hostile to him.
"I'm moved, I always believed in his innocence. I wanted very much for this to be over," Michele Sabban, a fellow Socialist Party member, said on i-Tele television.
Residents of Sarcelles, a working class Paris suburb where Strauss-Kahn is mayor, were largely enthusiastic and empathetic about his return.
"I'm happy for him. It's the end of an ordeal. Now ... we should leave him alone a little bit," resident Laurent Giaoui told The Associated Press.
A prominent member of Sarkozy's conservative UMP party, Xavier Bertrand, shrugged off Strauss-Kahn's appearance in Paris. "Like many French people, I have lots of others worries in my head," he said on Europe-1 radio. "I have a hard time imagining" Strauss-Kahn back in politics, he said.
Strauss-Kahn flew in to Paris from New York's JFK Airport early Sunday and gave a brief wave upon leaving the arrivals hall. Pushing a luggage cart, he did not speak to the large crowd.
His wife, respected former TV personality Anne Sinclair, was at his side, beaming widely. Riot police protected him and the area. The two then drove to one of their homes, on Paris' tony Place des Vosges. The crush of reporters was so thick that Strauss-Kahn had trouble reaching and opening his front door.
The last time he tried to take an Air France flight out of JFK, Strauss-Kahn was pulled out of first class minutes before takeoff by police. They were investigating the maid's claim that hours earlier, Strauss-Kahn had forced her to perform oral sex and tried to rape her.
He quit his job, spent almost a week in jail, then six weeks of house arrest and nearly two more months barred from leaving the country before Manhattan prosecutors dropped the case last month, saying they no longer trusted the maid, Guinean immigrant Nafissatou Diallo.
Diallo is continuing to press her claims in a lawsuit. Strauss-Kahn denies the allegations.
Strauss-Kahn faces another investigation in France based on accusations by French novelist Tristane Banon, who says he tried to rape her during an interview in 2003. He calls the claim "imaginary."
Banon's mother, Anne Mansouret, told the AP that Strauss-Kahn's return "is a good thing for my daughter's complaint because he will have to answer to police."
Banon says she didn't file a complaint after the incident because her mother, a regional Socialist official, urged her not to.
Mansouret, who now says she regrets that decision, called it "profoundly indecent" that Strauss-Kahn's homecoming Sunday was like that of a "star."
The AP does not name people who report being sexually assaulted unless they agree to be identified or come forward publicly, as Diallo and Banon have done.
Strauss-Kahn, known in France by his initials DSK, is also dubbed a "great seducer" by French commentators for his reputation for sexual adventures.
That reputation - and France's overall attitude toward keeping politicians' private lives private - came under scrutiny after Strauss-Kahn's arrest. Many called for more openness about questionable private behavior that might reflect on a politician's public life.
The Socialist Party is now in a fierce campaign for primaries next month to choose its candidate for April and May presidential elections. The front-runners, while relieved that the New York case was dropped, do not appear keen for Strauss-Kahn to make a comeback.
Strauss-Kahn, an eloquent economist and former finance minister, still has many fans in France, and there remains a small chance he could play a role in the presidential campaign. Strauss-Kahn himself has remained silent about his political plans.
In welcoming Strauss-Kahn back Sunday, many French people expressed concern for his wife - who was more famous in France than her husband before they married 20 years ago - and what she's been through in recent months.
One supporter belted out an ode to Strauss-Kahn in a performance at the Paris airport Sunday morning, accompanied by a Verdi opera played on a portable stereo, before police officers asked him to stop.
"Dominique! Dominique!," shouted Gregoire Vandevelde, who said he was a former student of Strauss-Kahn's at a prestigious economic institute. "He is extremely brilliant, full of humor and very competent, warm with his students," Vandevelde said.