In 2009, she won rousing applause on Stewart’s “The Daily Show” for her tough talk against bankers — then won laughs for taking out a French beret for Stewart. “Viva la France! Viva la Christine Lagarde!” Stewart exclaimed.
Dominique Moisi, a founder of the French Institute for International Relations in Paris and a longtime acquaintance of Lagarde’s, said, “She’s mastered one of the things which is not common in France, to be a respected and popular politician, but also have a sense of humor,” he said. “She gives the impression of gravitas and seriousness without being arrogant.”
In the new HBO movie “Too Big to Fail,” an actress portraying Lagarde scolds then-Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson on the phone in 2008 for letting Lehman Brothers go bankrupt. In real life, Lagarde is more tactful, at least in public. The first lesson of Lehman’s collapse, she said in Washington in October 2008, was “humility,” adding that she didn’t want to blame anyone, “certainly not Hank.” But then she said restoring markets should take precedence over punishing specific firms. “The moral hazards have to be dealt with at a later stage,” she said.
“The markets need different rules and better rules,” she said. “A lot of the difficulties are the result of an absence of rules.”
Last year, she backed a far-reaching rescue plan to both bolster a tottering Greece and protect the rest of the euro zone. “We are all Greek,” she said in an interview then. After tense negotiations, she said a deal was made that “was Italian pasta, German sausage and French wine.”
Many economists say she is too soft on banks. Zingales criticizes Lagarde as reluctant “about taking a pound of flesh from creditors” of struggling governments. Simon Johnson, a former IMF chief economist, complains that she opposed higher capital requirements for banks. He laments that she has not embraced a restructuring of loans for Greece, calling her approach “extend and pretend” to avoid forcing large write-offs at French banks.
“We’re ruling it out in any form,” she said when the French newspaper Le Figaro asked her about Greek restructuring this month. She pressed the Greek government to privatize state-owned assets instead.
Although some Europeans say they need one of their own to persuade reluctant policymakers, Johnson said: “You need someone with more distance.”
In the IMF’s voting system, which gives more weight to the largest economies, Europe has about a third of the votes needed. The United States has 17 percent.
President Obama, in Europe on a number of state visits, is expected to be lobbied by British, French and German officials to back Lagarde.
Lagarde’s candidacy remains clouded by a judicial inquiry into whether she improperly moved a court case involving the sale of the sportswear company Adidas to an arbitration proceeding. In the end, French tycoon Bernard Tapie, a close ally of President Nicolas Sarkozy, received $400 million. A report on Lagarde’s intervention is expected soon.
With new fears of default by near-bankrupt Greece and anxiety about more major European economies, Europeans are arguing that Lagarde would represent a seamless transition from Strauss-Kahn, who pushed the IMF to lend emergency money more rapidly in times of crisis.
She has minced no words about one flaw she sees in big banks: too many men.
“Gender-dominated environments are not good . . . particularly in the financial sector, where there are too few women,” she told Britain’s Independent newspaper in February. “Men have a tendency to . . . show how hairy-chested they are, compared with the man who’s sitting next to them. I honestly think that there should never be too much testosterone in one room.”
Mufson reported from Washington.