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She’s got a crushing handshake and a killer smile.
I first met Christine Lagarde in 2007, shortly after she was appointed France’s finance minister - the first woman to hold such a role among the world’s eight most industrialized nations.
I remember being transfixed by two things: her imposing stature (standing six-feet tall versus my five-foot nothing) and considerable self assurance. Yet Lagarde’s “Iron Lady” ego and Thatcheresque looks belie a more deadly weapon to those who stand in her way. For Madame Lagarde is, above all, charming.
At a meeting of EU finance chiefs in Nice, southern France, a year later, I watched Lagarde’s male counterparts both cower and drool as she delivered a powerful pre-dinner speech in the garden of a Riviera villa wearing a suit that meant business and satin stilettos that said cocktail time.
The evening was warm, the champagne flowed and with Lagarde on the stage, the credit crunch seemed a distant memory even though Europe was already lurching into a recession. Lagarde, whose country was now halfway through its rotating EU presidency, was on top form even if the financial sector was not. You see, part of Lagarde’s charm is that she embodies contradictions. Her stewardship during the crisis has stood her in good stead ever since.
But that gathering was France entertaining its clubby eurozone neighbors - and now Lagarde may well have more international ambitions. This is because she is reportedly front-runner in the race to replace Dominique Strauss-Kahn as head of the International Monetary Fund.
At first glance Lagarde seems as Gallic as they come. She always makes time during her busy schedule to have a proper lunch – le dejeuner is in fact something of a ritual on the sixth floor of number 139 Rue de Bercy, the seat of the finance ministry in Paris.


So far so French… yet what makes Lagarde properly palatable to politicians across the Pond is that she has spent many years in the United States, reaching the top of Baker & McKenzie, one of the country’s biggest law firms, as its first female chairman. Lagarde’s time in the U.S. has left her with impeccable English and fluent in the language of finance, making her one of the most lucid and respected politicians in Europe.
Her pulling power extends to the media as well. Last year Forbes magazine rated her the world’s 43rd most powerful woman and she was voted best European finance minister by the Financial Times in 2009.
But for Lagarde, being European –or indeed French – may prove to be a double-edged sword. France has dominated the top positions at the fund since its inception in 1945, providing four out of its past 11 managing directors. And while emerging markets have stoked debate about opening up the field, experts say it’s unlikely European countries will relinquish control anytime soon with bailouts for Greece, Portugal and Ireland to consider.
Yet it may well be that the West and the rest can both have their cake and eat it because, as of August, the deputy managing director’s role will be up for grabs too. In confirming his decision to step down soon – an announcement made before Strauss-Kahn's arrest – acting IMF MD John Lipsky told CNN that appointments will be based on merit.
Christine Lagarde is a woman with many facets but her laser-sharp focus is what marks most. The mother of two once represented her country’s hopes in synchronised swimming. Whether she can keep its position on the international arena we will soon know.

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