It would be impossible to overestimate the depth of the embarrassment the French feel about Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s spectacularly sleazy fall from grace. Yet the nation is agog at the prospect of a largely unhoped-for consolation prize: the appointment of Christine Lagarde, currently France’s finance minister, to replace him as managing director of the International Monetary Fund.
Lagarde seems to be the woman without enemies. She is supported by an unlikely alliance of her German counterpart, Wolfgang Schaüble, and Britain’s George Osborne, who doubtless admires her passion for Hayekian economics. Despite their reservations about a European stitch-up, the Brazilians and Chinese seem to be warming to her. The opposition Socialists have, after praising her fine qualities, decided to oppose her candidacy, but have been seen as bungling and unpatriotic for doing so.
All this is quite a triumph for a near-unknown, who spent her entire career in one of America’s largest law firms, and only took a junior cabinet post in 2005 – and for Nicolas Sarkozy, the man who four years ago made her the first female finance minister in the entire G8. Yet Lagarde has a track record of terrifying competence. The elegant 55-year-old (still a size eight) is trilingual in French, English and Spanish. A former scholarship student, champion synchronised swimmer and scout troop leader, she joined the firm of Baker-McKenzie straight out of law school, rising to become its chairman before jumping ship to enter politics.
Part of the secret of Lagarde’s success is that she maintains complete control over her image. She has been married twice, before settling down with an old friend from university whom she met again six years ago. But neither of her former husbands – the mysterious M. Lagarde, who fathered her two sons, or Eacran Gilmour, nationality uncertain, who runs companies in Poland – is even mentioned in her official biography or Who’s Who listing.
She is also a first-rate television performer, capable of showing up for an interview with the US comic Jon Stewart wearing a Gallic beret and play-acting the caricature Frenchman. It is possible she made the outfit herself – she has been known to run up smart dresses on her mother’s old sewing machine – but generally, she favours severe Armani and Chanel suits, Hermès handbags and discreet scarves. In doing so, she embodies a distinctive chic miles away from the bling of the early Sarkozy presidency, which has made her a regular in the pages of the glossy magazines.
Although she has few enemies, those who have crossed Lagarde share the shell-shocked look of someone who has been hit by a semi-articulated lorry. Her junior minister for foreign trade – a job she had herself held – found himself shorn of most of his sensitive work soon after Lagarde decided he was a lightweight. “She’s always smiling, always polite, but she’s an American lawyer at heart – a killer shark,” says a former Ministry of Finance official, who was fired for not showing up at her job enough, even though she is one of Lagarde’s party and sits with her in the Paris City Council. “You don’t do this to a fellow councilwoman, let alone someone of your own party.”
Outside of France, Lagarde is known as a networker among the world’s most powerful women, championing quiet affirmative action “when needed” to break the glass ceiling. She has been called the “rock star” of international finance, but she’s more the Coco Chanel, preferring to build consensus and reach elegant solutions to testosterone-fuelled posturing. (Famously, she said that if Lehman Brothers had been called Lehman Sisters, it might not have imploded.)
It is, however, that preference for arbitration over conflict that could derail her IMF candidacy. As finance minister, Lagarde put an end to a legal battle over the near-collapse of Crédit Lyonnais in the 1990s – but France’s official Court of Audits has now indicated that the plaintiff received too much in compensation, and questioned Lagarde’s decision to overrule her bureaucrats. Piquantly, they will announce whether a judicial case will result on June 10, the very day when the IMF will name its next boss. Still, do the magistrates really want to dash France’s hope of saving the IMF job for La Patrie?
If they decide against a court case, and Lagarde does get the job, then Nicolas Sarkozy will doubtless contemplate the turn in his fortunes with glee. Ten days ago, his poll numbers were burning holes in the Elysée carpets. Now his most dangerous presidential competitor is facing a long term in jail; the Socialists are about to tear themselves to pieces in a take-no-prisoners primary; his wife is awaiting the birth of a son and receiving rave reviews for her “luminous” performance in Woody Allen’s new film Paris at Midnight; and he has even come across as lovable in La Conquête, a The Deal-style biopic about his 2007 election campaign. As everyone, even Les Rosbifs, lines up to back his finance minister to blaze a feminist trail at the world’s financial watchdog, Le Président must be feeling that there is a God after all.
© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2011