NEW YORK - Dominique Strauss-Kahn formally asserted his innocence yesterday to charges he tried to rape a hotel maid, but the drama unfolded outside the Manhattan courtroom as protesters jeered the former International Monetary Fund leader and lawyers for the housekeeper said she was eager to testify despite a "smear campaign" against her.

Strauss-Kahn's attorneys offered a rival account of the May 14 encounter at his $3,000-a-night Manhattan hotel suite, hinting again that the French diplomat might argue the encounter was consensual.

By the end of the case, "it will be clear that there was no element of forcible compulsion in this case whatsoever," defense lawyer Ben Brafman said. "Any suggestion to the contrary is simply not credible."

Strauss-Kahn, looking resolute, declared "not guilty" in a strong voice in a routine legal proceeding that lasted fewer than 10 minutes as his wife, journalist Anne Sinclair, watched.

It was the French diplomat's first court appearance since he was released on $6 million in cash bail and bond last month. He has been under house arrest that includes 24-hour monitors and armed guards in a deluxe townhouse in the trendy TriBeCa neighborhood.

As Strauss-Kahn left the courthouse, a throng of angry hotel workers, many in their uniforms, chanted "shame on you" as he left in a black sport-utility vehicle.

The protesters wanted to send the message that "New York is the wrong place to mess with a hotel worker," said Aissata Bocum, a Ramada Inn housekeeper. The 50 or so workers, mostly maids, were bused in by their union.

After Strauss-Kahn was driven away, his lawyers duked it out with attorneys for the accuser, a 32-year-old West African immigrant. In sequential statements before an international horde of reporters, each side's lawyers argued their client's version of events would prevail.

Brafman said the attorneys would not try the case publicly, but referred to Strauss-Kahn's not-guilty plea as "a very eloquent, powerful statement that he made that he denies the charges."

Strauss-Kahn, 62, was scheduled to check out of the Sofitel hotel, near Times Square, the day of the encounter. The maid told police he chased her down a hallway in his Sofitel hotel suite May 14, tried to pull down her pantyhose and forced her to perform oral sex.

The maid's attorney, Kenneth Thompson, said his client would testify at trial and tell the truth despite the "smear campaign that is being committed against her."

He was referring to mostly French media reports alleging a conspiracy against Strauss-Kahn and suggesting her story was invented. The defense has also alluded to having damning information against the maid but has not released it.