World View: The making of Christine Lagarde

Poised to take helm at ECB, French role model has talent for right place at right time

"No, no, no, no, no, no," Christine Lagarde said last year when asked if she was interested in running the European Central Bank (ECB). What she meant, we now know, was "yes".

Lagarde sounds so much like a politician that it's easy to forget that she isn't one, or at least hasn't been for very long. Nor is she a central banker or an economist, two facts that raised eyebrows when she was chosen by EU leaders as successor to Mario Draghi in Frankfurt – a job that will make her, arguably, the most powerful woman in Europe.

This is a recurring pattern. In her public life – as a French government minister, director general of the International Monetary Fund, and now, assuming her appointment is confirmed, as president of the ECB – being the unlikely candidate has been the making of her.

Lagarde’s public life began shakily. Having capped a stellar career as an antitrust lawyer by securing the chairmanship of Baker McKenzie, then the world’s second-largest legal firm, Lagarde’s move into politics came with an unexpected phone call from Paris in 2005.


She had the protection of Sarkozy's sponsorship yet simultaneously benefited from the public perception that, having never been elected, she was somehow above the fray

The caller was Dominique de Villepin, then prime minister under president Jacques Chirac. He wanted her to join his government as trade minister. The woman who ran a $1.4 billion company moved from Chicago to Paris, where she became cabinet minister No 24 in the order of precedence.

But her ascent was rapid. She astutely aligned herself with a rising Nicolas Sarkozy. When he succeeded Chirac in 2007, she became agriculture minister, and just a few months later, was promoted to finance minister.

At first, her inexperience left her exposed. In 2007, when rising petrol prices were vexing the public, she advised people to get on their bicycles. She alarmed colleagues by breezily talking about a policy of rigueur (austerity) – a toxic word synonymous with the painful cuts of the 1980s. Her nickname became Christine Lagaffe.

At the end of her first year in the finance ministry, the media was speculating about her departure. Her lowest point, she later recalled, was when a journalist asked her during a G8 summit in Japan in 2008 whether she was going to resign.

Recessionary plaudits

Then Lehman Brothers collapsed, the world economy went into a spin, and Lagarde's steady, assured handling of the aftermath brought her international plaudits, magazine covers and rocketing approval ratings.

At home, where she had no party base, she had the protection of Sarkozy’s sponsorship yet simultaneously benefited from the public perception that, having never been elected, she was somehow above the fray (while nominally a minister of the centre-right UMP, she let it be known that she had voted for the socialist François Mitterrand in the 1980s).

Her career to date suggests that, on policy, Lagarde will bring continuity over rupture at the ECB

And, like any successful public figure, she had some lucky breaks. Had Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s term not been cut short after his arrest in New York in 2011, she would probably not have been appointed to succeed him at the IMF. 

Had the ECB job not come vacant this year at the same time as four other EU top jobs (it normally doesn’t) and ended up being haggled over as part of a carefully weighted deal among EU leaders, it probably would have gone to someone with a more conventional monetary policy background.

Force of continuity

In 2016, Lagarde was found guilty of negligence for failing to challenge a €404 million award to the flamboyant French businessman Bernard Tapie over the sale of sportswear brand Adidas. Although she avoided jail and a fine, and the court decided the conviction would not constitute a criminal record, it was the sort of finding that would have been fatal to many careers. But by then she had amassed sufficient political capital to survive.

Her career to date suggests that, on policy, Lagarde will bring continuity over rupture at the ECB. But, in itself, her appointment will be an important milestone.

Everywhere she has gone, Lagarde has broken the glass ceiling. First woman to run Baker & MacKenzie. First woman to become French finance minister. First woman to lead the IMF.

And now, first woman to take the helm at the ECB. For a whole generation of women in politics, business and law, especially in France, she is living proof that these heights can be scaled without being an énarque (Lagarde twice failed the entrance exam for the elite finishing school), without being immersed in the Paris corporate culture (she emigrated) and, of course, without having to be man.

“I’m well aware of the admiration and the recognition I can attract, especially among women,” she has said. “It’s an extra responsibility. You don’t have the right to disappoint.”