French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde launched her formal bid to become the next head of the International Monetary Fund on Wednesday as an opposition group of countries attacked Europe’s “obsolete” grip on the position.
Lagarde, who has the backing of the European Union and its key members Britain, Germany and France, threw her hat in the ring after what she described as “mature reflection” and having consulted with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The IMF has been looking for a new managing director since Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a 62-year-old Frenchman, stepped down last week after his indictment on sexual assault charges that sprang from the alleged attempted rape of a New York hotel housekeeper.
If the 55-year-old Lagarde should be successful, she would become the first woman to head the organization since its inception in 1945.
Her candidacy has the backing of Sarkozy, who is hoping to enlist the support of President Obama when the two leaders meet at the Group of 8 economic summit in the French resort town of Deauville on Thursday and Friday.
“If I’m elected, I’ll bring all my expertise as a lawyer, a minister, a manager and a woman” to the job, Lagarde said at a news conference in Paris.
Although Lagarde has emerged as a front-runner for the influential post, which historically has been held by a European, IMF directors from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa said that unwritten convention was “obsolete” and undermined the legitimacy of the fund, which helps oversee the international financial system.
They called for a “truly transparent, merit-based and competitive process.” In a rare joint statement published on the IMF website, the group said: “This requires abandoning the unwritten convention that requires that the head of the IMF be necessarily from Europe.”
Admirers of Lagarde, a divorced mother of two and former national synchronized swimming champion, have described her as a “rock star” of the financial world. She has won praise for her handling of the economic crisis at home and abroad.
As a student, Lagarde worked as an intern for William S. Cohen, later secretary of Defense under President Clinton, when he was a member of Congress. After finishing her studies in Paris, she returned to the United States to work as a lawyer, staying for 25 years and becoming chairman of the Chicago-based international law firm Baker & McKenzie.
She was nicknamed “L’Americaine” by compatriots after suggesting that the French needed to stop their “obsessive thinking,” roll up their shirt sleeves and “get to work” to pull the country out of the financial doldrums.
On Wednesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner told journalists that both Lagarde and the Mexican candidate for the post, Agustin Carstens, were “credible” figures to lead the fund, adding that he wanted the candidate with the broadest support.
Lagarde is also facing the hurdle of a possible legal investigation in France into the payment of $400 million of taxpayer money to controversial businessman Bernard Tapie, a supporter of Sarkozy, to settle a long-running legal dispute.
The IMF’s 24-member executive board, representing the 187 member countries, is expected to name a new managing director by the end of June.
If appointed, Lagarde would also bring a feminine touch to the male-dominated corridors of the IMF headquarters in Washington, which she would no doubt see as a very good idea. In a recent television interview, she expressed the view that men, left to themselves, will usually make a mess of things.
“I honestly think that there should never be too much testosterone in one room,” she said.
Willsher is a special correspondent.