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France

Christine Lagarde: A French politician with an American pedigree

©

Video by Catherine Nicholson

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2011-06-28

Christine Lagarde’s blend of French sophistication and US pedigree (she lived in the US for 25 years), combined with her defence of both free market economics and French social subsidies, have earned her admiration at home and abroad.

Dubbed “the Coco Chanel of world finance” by the international press, the sleek, silver-haired French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde is considered the frontrunner to take over as head of the IMF after Dominique Strauss-Kahn resigned amid charges of attempted rape.

If Strauss-Kahn’s hasty departure has left France red-faced on the world stage, Lagarde’s well-regarded, potentially history-making candidacy - if she gets the job, she will be the first woman to hold the position - carries a hint of redemption.

With her blend of what is often portrayed as quintessentially French sophistication and an American pedigree (she speaks fluent English, having lived in the US for 25 years), Lagarde has emerged over recent years as a popular politician both in France and abroad: the French ranked her second (behind only rocker Johnny Hallyday) in a 2009 poll of favourite public figures carried out by paper Le Parisien and radio station RTL, and British daily the Financial Times named her best European finance minister that same year.

Moderate economic policies, smiles, and straight talk

Born Christine Lallouette in Paris, Lagarde was a synchronised swimming champion as a teenager before going on to study law in Paris and then a Masters in Political Science in Aix en Provence. Told by the head of a French law firm that, as a woman, she would never make partner in France, Lagarde moved to the US in 1981 and worked her way up to the top of Chicago-based international firm Baker & McKenzie. In 1999, she became the firm’s first female chairman.

But it was under former President Jacques Chirac that Lagarde’s political career took off. Largely unknown to the French public, Lagarde was appointed trade minister in 2005 and initially aroused skepticism in France with her comments that the French labour market was too “rigid”. But she earned high marks in the position for overseeing a significant rise in French exports.

Lagarde was appointed finance minister by newly elected President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007, becoming the first woman in France to have the post. Known as both steadfastly protective of French interests (as well as what she has called the French “safety net”) and to be admiring of the more free-market Anglo-Saxon economic model, Lagarde was crucial notably in securing the approval of a bailout mechanism or flailing euro zone members in 2010.

If Lagarde’s lack of an academic background in economics has been cited as a professional limitation, she has won respect from international leaders for her deftness in brokering international deals under pressure during France’s G20 presidency this year.

Lagarde is also widely appreciated for her brisk, friendly manner and penchant for straight talk and candor. She has openly criticised what she has said is a macho corporate culture leading up to the financial crisis of 2008, and when appearing in 2009 on US TV host Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show”, Lagarde boasted of firing inefficient managers at a French-Belgian bank.

During that interview, Lagarde also delighted the American audience and host with her sense of humour, drawing applause and laughter when presenting Stewart with a stereotypical French beret.

The most prominent blemish on Lagarde’s otherwise rather squeaky-clean image is a sticky legal situation in which Lagarde has faced questions over her role in a 2007 case that saw French businessman and Sarkozy ally Bernard Tapie awarded a lavish settlement.

Lagarde has rebuffed the accusations that she abused her authority by ordering a special panel of judges to intervene in the case amount to “political maneuvering” and insists that she acted in accordance with the law.

Date created : 2011-05-27

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