Newsmaker: Christine Lagarde

The International Monetary Fund head visited the UAE this week under the shadow of a legal battle in her home country involving a multimillion-dirham payment to a French tycoon.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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Throughout her public appearances in the UAE this week, Christine Lagarde revealed nothing of the storm clouds gathering in her native France, where she’s facing criminal charges and the prospect of prison.

But while the managing director of the International ­Monetary Fund was advising Gulf states to impose taxes and raise energy prices, she must surely have been reflecting ruefully on the unexpected twist of fate that’s threatening to derail her hitherto charmed career.

In December, a French court ordered Lagarde to stand trial over a payment of €403 million (Dh1.63 billion) made by the French state in 2008 to the controversial tycoon Bernard Tapie.

The businessman claimed for years that the then state-owned Crédit Lyonnais bank had defrauded him in 1993, selling his shares in the company Adidas for far less than they were worth.

Tapie supported Nicolas Sarkozy’s successful 2007 presidential race, and it was on the newly appointed Lagarde’s watch as finance minister that he was finally reimbursed.

On December 17 last year, France’s Cour de Justice de la République ruled that Lagarde should be charged with ­“negligence by a person in position of public authority”. Tapie has been ordered to repay the money.

Lagarde has described the decision to charge her as ­“difficult to comprehend”. To what extent the accusations are politically motivated – Sarkozy’s centre-­right Union for a Popular ­Movement, last year renamed The Republicans, was displaced in power in 2012 by Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party – remains to be seen.

One thing is certain: if the case ever does come to trial, Lagarde, a seasoned lawyer and politician hailed in 2014 by Forbes magazine as the fifth most powerful woman in the world, will be no pushover in court.

Christine Madeleine Odette Lallouette was born in Paris on January 1, 1956, to academic parents Robert, an English professor, and Nicole, a classics teacher.

While Lagarde was still young, the family moved to Le Havre in Normandy, where she developed a passion for synchronised swimming, earning a bronze medal in the national championships at the age of 15.

That sport, she would later say, “taught me grit your teeth and smile”, a lesson she found valuable when politics beckoned. ”In exactly the same way, it’s a sport of resistance and endurance,” she said.

Fitness has remained a passion for Lagarde, who turned 60 last month. She still regularly swims and cycles, practises yoga, eschews alcohol and is vegetarian.

In 1972, when she was 16, her father died. It was an event Lagarde described as “a pivotal moment” that a first taste of “the hardship, the pain” of life, and provided the future divorcee with “a better understanding of how tough it can be for a single mother to raise kids”.

Graduating from high school in France, Lagarde travelled to the United States on an exchange programme to spend a year at Holton-Arms, an elite private college preparatory school for girls in Bethesda, Maryland.

There, she would make friends – and contacts – for life. Other distinguished alumnae of the school include Jacqueline ­Kennedy Onassis, the philanthropist Brooke Astor and Lagarde’s contemporary, Susan Ford, the daughter of the former US president Gerald Ford.

An opportunity that opened up for her towards the end of her year at Holton-Arms would give her first invaluable lesson in the frequently bruising world of politics. In 1974, William Cohen, a young US Republican congressman, was gathering the evidence that would lead to the impeachment of Richard Nixon for his involvement in the ­Watergate affair.

Lagarde, hired for her ability to communicate with Cohen’s French-speaking constituents in Maine, joined him as an ­intern.

"During that year, at Holton-Arms, with my host family and interning in Washington," Lagarde told The Washington Post in 2011, "I learnt more, and it mattered more to me, probably, than any year of my life."

Her proximity to the revelations of the Nixon era, she said, “made me think about checks and balances. It was my first injection of political life, and to get that at age 18 leaves a mark on you.”

On her return to France, Lagarde acquired a master’s in English – which she speaks with only the faintest trace of an accent – and graduated in law from the University of Paris X Nanterre, later specialising in antitrust and labour law. She also holds a master’s from the Institute of Political Studies in Aix-en-Provence.

In 1981, she joined the international law firm Baker & McKenzie in Paris, and rocketed up the hierarchy, making partner in 1987, and in 1995 becoming the first woman to join the firm’s executive committee. Appointed chair in 1999, she moved to the firm’s headquarters in Chicago.

In 2005, domestic politics, called and she moved back to France to become the then prime minister Dominique de Villepin’s trade minister. Two years later, under Sarkozy, she became the first female finance minister in the G8 group of nations.

Lagarde became a truly global figure in July 2011 when she was selected by the executive board of the IMF to serve as its managing director for a five-year term.

Once again, it was an inspirational first for her gender – she was the first woman to hold the top post since the IMF was founded in 1944.

Unlike many politicians, throughout her career she has favoured candour over cant.

At the height of the Eurozone crisis in 2012, Lagarde had stern words for the cash-strapped, cap-in-hand Greeks. Asked by one newspaper whether she had considered the plight of Greek “mothers unable to get access to midwives”, she replied: “I think more of the little kids from a school in a little village in Niger who get teaching two hours a day, sharing one chair for three of them, and who are very keen to get an education … because I think they need even more help than the people in Athens.”

The Greeks, she added, could help themselves, “by all paying their tax”.

Since her elevation to head of the IMF – a post she inherited from another former French politician, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who resigned in 2011 amid allegations of sexual assault – Lagarde has had to endure extraordinary sexism at the hands of the world’s media.

Focusing on her "couture" clothing and "disarming charm", "seductive" and "glamorous" are adjectives that have dogged her steps. Upon her appointment to the IMF even the left-wing British newspaper The Guardian headlined its story "Is this the world's sexiest woman?"

Small wonder that in 2010, while still France’s finance minister, Lagarde noted that women made better politicians because they “inject less libido and less testosterone into the equation”.

During the financial crisis of 2008, she told one interviewer that if there had been more women in positions of political and economic power, the whole thing might not have been as calamitous as it was.

Lagarde’s true appeal, as one former colleague at the IMF put it, is that “she is enormously impressive, politically astute and a strong personality”. At finance meetings around the world, he added, “she is treated practically like a rock star”.

She once said she had never left a job without ensuring her successor was a woman, and that given two identically qualified candidates for a post, she would always pick the woman.

Like all professional women, Lagarde has faced difficult domestic choices, and she spoke about these recently.

Lagarde has been married twice – in 1982 to the financial analyst Wilfred Lagarde, with whom she had two sons; and after their divorce in 1982, to Eachran ­Gilmour. Divorced for a second time, her partner since 2006 has been the French businessman Xavier Giocanti.

"To harmonise your personal life with your professional life is a struggle," she told CNN in ­January. "Maternity comes at a time when professional demand on a young woman is at the highest, so that's a tough call, [but] I confronted that and dealt with it."

Women, she said, can have it all, but at a price. “You live with guilt, you learn how to deal with it, but there have been many occasions when my kids were small when I couldn’t go to a parents’ event because I was tied up in court.”

She continues to balance the demands of home and office. After her move to the IMF, she told Vogue magazine that ­Giocanti would stay at home in France, promising to visit her in ­Washington for a week every month.

“Frankly, that’s fine with me,” she said. “I’ll be so busy, it’ll be easier not to have to worry about someone else or argue about dinner or who’s going to take out the rubbish.”

Now Lagarde is facing a return to court in altogether different circumstances, but the seasoned lawyer and politician appears entirely unruffled by the prospect.

She has the unwavering support of the IMF board, which last Friday announced she had been selected for a second five-year term in office.

As the quote from former US secretary of state Henry ­Kissinger displayed prominently on her desk at the IMF in New York says: “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.”

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