Tue, Jul 19, 2011 - Page 9 News List

New IMF boss can grit her teeth, smile and get on with the job

Christine Lagarde is the first woman to helm the IMF, but her intellect, elan and stamina means she will thrive in the fiercely competitive world of global finance

By Molly Guinness  /  The Observer, LONDON

In May 1968, when IMF managing director Christine Lagarde was a teenager, French schools were shut down during a student uprising. As her fellow pupils took to the streets to throw cobblestones at the police, Lagarde took up synchronised swimming and went on to win a bronze medal in the national championships.

“It was synchronised swimming that taught me: ‘Grit your teeth and smile,’” she has said.

And it has been helpful in her subsequent career in politics.

“In exactly the same way, it’s a sport of resistance and endurance. You’re in tension and control,” she said.

If her teeth are gritted, it’s impossible to tell. What lovely teeth she has — straight and white, they gleam out of a permanently, almost alarmingly, tanned face. Tall — she’s 1.8m — and slim, the 55-year-old Lagarde dresses with the casual elan of a Parisian, patriotically attired in Chanel suits and Hermes scarves, along with jazzy bracelets and fur-lined ponchos. Lagarde softens her rather severe black-and-white outfits with silk scarves, a string of pearls or a brooch. She has widely spaced green eyes framed by a silver bob. She still swims, but not in formation.

Two weeks ago, Lagarde became the first woman to head up the IMF, the latest high in a career that has seen her become the first female finance minister of a G8 economy, as well as the first female chair of an international law firm.

In a country where a minister has recently said that politics is so sexist she cannot wear a skirt in parliament without attracting comments, Lagarde’s rise is extraordinary, and it is partly because she has stayed away from France. She is keen on helping women, but she is also determinedly different from many women in French politics, who sometimes have a way of undermining themselves.

“She’s unusual among French female politicians in that there’s nothing coquettish about her,” said Andrew Hussey, a professor at the University of London Institute in Paris. “A lot of the others — such as Segolene Royal — play on a kind of French feminine elegance.”

Lagarde, by contrast, creates an almost surreal aura of veneration. This is combined with a nuanced command of English, a precise intellect and unnerving stamina. People talk about Lagarde with admiration that borders on hero worship. She “radiates charm,” she “oozes respect.” She is described variously as intelligent, beautiful, upstanding and elegant. In short, they usually conclude, elle a de la classe.

In her campaign to get her new job, Lagarde had to convince China that she was worth voting for. The emerging market economies had spent weeks complaining about the European stranglehold on the job, but Lagarde won round Beijing in an afternoon. Lunch with the central bank governor and a meeting with the deputy prime minister was enough to clinch it.

Lagarde was born on New Year’s Day 1956 and grew up in Le Havre in northern France. She had three younger brothers; her father was an English professor, her mother a Latin teacher. They hosted intellectual dinner parties and took her to the opera. Her father died of motor neuron disease when she was 17, and soon afterward, she went to study in the US, before returning to France to study law. After twice failing the exams to get into the French civil service and being told she would never make partner in a French law firm as a woman, she joined the international firm Baker & McKenzie, where she rose to chairman of the board.

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