WASHINGTON, D.C.: Five years ago Christine Lagarde smashed through the glass ceiling at one of the world’s leading institutions, becoming the first woman to head the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Some had questioned her lack of credentials as an economist. But, as she plunged into the Greece crisis to prevent a meltdown of the eurozone, doubts were quickly swept aside.
On Friday the French lawyer and former finance minister’s achievements leading the crisis lender were confirmed: facing no challengers, she was named to a second five-year term as IMF managing director.
Lagarde, 60, has rebuffed all doubters after having started out as a lawyer who was told that, as a woman, she had little future in the field.
She skipped a French establishment career and instead joined the prestigious US legal consulting giant Baker & McKenzie.
By 1999 she had pushed her way up to become chairwoman of the company’s global executive committee, a first for the firm, and then of its global strategy committee in 2004.
She then embraced politics, joining the government of president Jacques Chirac as trade minister in June 2005.
Two years later, she became finance minister under Chirac’s successor Nicolas Sarkozy, the first woman ever named to that post.
She appeared headed for greater heights in French politics when she was suddenly drafted to replace IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, another French politician who was forced to resign from the Fund under a cloud of sex scandal in 2011.
With Europe plunging into crisis, the IMF move gave her a powerful seat inside the closed circle of the world’s leaders, but also responsibility for handling Greece’s debt crisis, and those of Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus.
A tough negotiator and determined consensus-builder, Lagarde didn’t hesitate to cross swords with the very officials she worked closely with in her previous job, even criticizing her successor as finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, of being asleep during one crisis meeting.
“There are many instances of Ms Lagarde’s courageous truth-telling,” said economist Desmond Lachman, a former IMF official.
At the same time, she skillfully managed the shifting currents of power in the Fund, where emerging giants like China are challenging the dominance of the old powers like the United States, Europe and Japan.
Lagarde recently scored two major successes at the IMF: the addition of the Chinese yuan to the Fund’s basket of reserve currencies and the passage by the US Congress of long-stalled IMF reforms, for which she had joked she would belly-dance for Congress if needed to get US ratification.