LILLE, France  - French police detained former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn for questioning Tuesday over allegations he took part in orgies in Paris and Washington with prostitutes paid for by businessmen.

The 62-year-old former Socialist minister, who until last year was seen as the frontrunner to replace Nicolas Sarkozy as president of France, had been summoned as a witness but prosecutors said he was now a suspect.

He turned up voluntarily at a police station in the northern city of Lille for his appointment for questioning about his role in the latest sex scandal to beset his ruined career.

After his arrival, prosecutors said he would be detained on suspicion of “abetting aggravated pimping by an organised gang” and “misuse of company funds” and could thus face charges.

A magistrate would have to decide whether the evidence supports these charges or other potential offences.

 Then, if the judge agrees, Strauss-Kahn could be released on bail or remanded in custody pending an eventual trial.

Under French law, aggravated organised pimping carries a prison term of up to 20 years and profiting from embezzlement five years and a large fine.

Between interrogations, the millionaire was to be held in a spartan 7.5-square-metre (80-square-foot) cell with a simple foam mattress, a sink and a hole-in-the-floor squat toilet.

Investigating magistrates want to know whether he was aware that the women who entertained him at parties in restaurants, hotels and swingers’ clubs in Paris, Washington and several European capitals were paid prostitutes.

They will also seek to determine whether Strauss-Kahn knew that the escorts were paid with funds fraudulently obtained by his hosts from a French public works company for which one of them worked as a senior executive.

Paying a prostitute is not in itself illegal in France, but profiting from vice or embezzling company funds to pay for sex can lead to charges.

The former director of the International Monetary Fund admits he has led an adventurous sex life, but denies that he was implicated in pimping or corruption and has indicated he will deny any criminal wrongdoing.

Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer Henri Leclerc has said his client could have been “perfectly unaware” the women were not providing their attentions for free.

Two businessmen, Fabrice Paszkowski, a medical equipment tycoon with ties to Strauss-Kahn’s Socialist Party, and David Roquet, former director of a local subsidiary of building giant BTP Eiffage, have been charged.

Strauss-Kahn is said to have met Paszkowski through a Socialist Party contact who was involved in organising his return to French politics to contest this year’s presidential election, which he was favourite to win.

The pair have alleged links to a network of French and Belgian prostitutes centred on the Carlton Hotel in Lille, a well-known meeting place of the local business and political elite in a city run by the Socialist Party.

In all, eight people have been charged in connection with the “Carlton affair” — including three executives from the luxury hotel itself, a leading lawyer and the local deputy police chief, Jean-Christophe Lagarde.

The last of the sex parties is said to have taken place during a trip to Washington and the IMF headquarters between May 11 and 13 last year by Paszkowski and Roquet, in part to discuss Strauss-Kahn’s presidential bid.

One day later, on May 14, Strauss-Kahn’s career fell apart when he was arrested in New York following allegations that he had subjected chambermaid Nafissatou Diallo to a brutal sexual assault in his hotel suite.

The case against him eventually collapsed when prosecutors began to doubt Diallo’s credibility as a witness, and Strauss-Kahn returned home to France to face further investigations and scandal.

First, 32-year-old French writer Tristane Banon accused him of attempting to rape her in 2003. Prosecutors decided there was prima facie evidence of a sexual assault, but ruled that the statute of limitations had passed.

Then, Strauss-Kahn was linked to the Carlton case when suspected escorts gave his name to police probing a vice ring linked to notorious Belgian pimp Dominique Alderweireld, known in the underworld as “Dodo la Saumure”.

Strauss-Kahn’s multi-millionaire heiress wife, journalist Anne Sinclair, has stood by him since the allegations erupted, but the website she edits — the French edition of the Huffington Post — led its front page with the scandal.

She made no editorial comment, but her team reported the case in depth.

The involvement of businessmen and police officers raised suspicions they intended to curry favour with a presidential contender by procuring women for him, but they are reported to have denied this during questioning.