Christine Lagarde is staring pensively at her office wall, covered with dozens of framed caricatures marking the highs and lows of her six years as a government minister. One in particular has been drawn to her attention. It is clear she is seeing it in a new light.
The picture shows the always elegantly dressed finance minister in stilettos and fishnet tights wielding a whip over a banker. Ms Lagarde is wondering whether the picture should have a place on her new wall, if she succeeds in becoming the next managing director of the International Monetary Fund.
The answer must be yes. After all, Ms Lagarde’s easy-going humour, as well as her generally acknowledged competence, are two of the reasons why most of Europe is backing her to replace Dominique Strauss-Kahn, now facing charges of allegedly assaulting a New York chambermaid, which he denies.
Even Russia and China, who earlier this week joined other developing countries in deploring Europe’s 64-year-long hold on the IMF post, are thought to favour Ms Lagarde. Yet there are critics, and not only from the developing world. Some well-known economists have suggested that Ms Lagarde, a corporate lawyer by training, may not be best qualified to oversee the global monetary system at a time of fundamental economic shifts.
The Economist this week also came out firmly against her nomination, accusing her of defending the indefensible as one of the architects of a clearly inadequate eurozone response to its debt crises. Sitting in her avant-garde office, Ms Lagarde calmly rebuts the criticism. “From what I know of the job, I think I can do it. One of the qualities that people recognise in me is my ability to reach out, to try to build a consensus, to bring people to the common interest while still being a very firm and no nonsense person.”
Ms Lagarde has had four years to learn to roll with the punches as minister in the government of Nicolas Sarkozy. At the start, the president spared no criticism of Ms Lagarde, whose plain-speaking style often landed her in political hot water. Presidential insults reverberated in the Elysée palace when, soon after being nominated finance minister, she spoke about an austerity plan, and again when she suggested the French get on their bikes to cope with high petrol prices. This for a time earned her the sobriquet Madame La Gaffe for her political blunders.
Today, having survived that turbulent beginning with dignified silence, her image could not be more different, and her importance to France’s international credibility is undeniable. Where Mr Sarkozy’s impulsiveness and showmanship often irritate his European partners, Ms Lagarde’s legally-honed negotiating skills have kept discussions going at crucial moments in Europe’s search for solutions to its debt crisis. Nowhere is this more evident than in France’s relationship with Germany. While Mr Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel struggle to overcome a mutual antipathy, “Christine Lagarde is highly regarded,” says one German official. “Her capacity to reach compromise in international negotiations is considered a strong plus.”
Ms Lagarde has attributed her deft managerial skills and team spirit to her upbringing as the eldest of four children – and the only girl – as well as the discipline of her chosen sport, synchronised swimming. Even today the willowy 55-year-old is said to refuse hotels without swimming pools when travelling.
“I have never worked alone, whether with my brothers or in my life,” she once said. “In synchronised swimming …one tries for the perfect vertical but, at the same time, you have to synchronise yourself perfectly with others.”
The daughter of teachers, Ms Lagarde has described her childhood as “Christian, tolerant, and rather left-leaning” – perhaps explaining why she voted Socialist in 1981 rather than for the centre-right for whom today she serves.
A critical moment in her evolution as an international policymaker came after her father died when she was 17, prompting her to go to the US on an exchange programme. This set the foundations for her near perfect English. Soon after graduating from law school, Ms Lagarde joined the Paris office of the leading US law firm Baker & McKenzie, where she eventually finished as global chairman at its Chicago headquarters.
In 2005 she was called back to France by Jacques Chirac to become trade minister. Though her political career has had its ups and downs, Ms Lagarde argues it has given her the qualifications for the top IMF job. “I don’t know many people who have had the luxury of four years of one of the worst financial crises in decades, the presidency of the European Union at exactly the same time, and the emergence of this new institution, the G20, while maintaining the French economy in a reasonably stable position.”
If she is picked, one of her greatest challenges may be to prove she is not hobbled by her lack of an academic economics background. She has a masters in political science as well as her law degree and says an economics grounding was part of the course. Michel Camdessus, the IMF’s managing director from 1987 to 2000, plays this down as a concern. “It is not important to have the same doctoral qualifications as those around you.” Rather you have to know how to guide a country in difficult times, “You have to be able to listen and to arbitrate between very different views …to be attentive to the evolution of the world and from time to time pick up the phone to the leader of a country and say, ‘watch out’. Ms Lagarde has shown she has these qualities, though others might have them too.”
So might the IMF’s members think another economist is needed, or a non-European? Ms Lagarde obviously hopes not. “This is not about the diploma I never had, and will never claim to have. It has to do with the skills and experience I have accumulated over the years,” she says. “I am not just a lawyer.”
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