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New IMF Chief Widely Respected

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, center, stands with ministers as she leaves the Elysee Palace in Paris, after the weekly Cabinet meeting, June 29, 2011
French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, center, stands with ministers as she leaves the Elysee Palace in Paris, after the weekly Cabinet meeting, June 29, 2011

The International Monetary Fund's first female head, Christine Lagarde, is considered a tough, competitive and widely respected politician. Lagarde, leaves her job as French finance minister and heads to Washington to head the organization.

Fifty-five-year-old Christine Lagarde is an elegant and imposing presence on the French and European landscape. She has won widespread respect as France's finance minister. And she helped lead the battle against the debt crisis hitting countries sharing the euro currency.

Choosing Lagarde as the International Monetary Fund's new boss was a foregone conclusion after she won the backing of the IMF's heavyweights - the United States, Russia, China and the Europeans.  Hours before the vote, US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner praised what he called her "exceptional talent and broad experience."

Analyst Dominique Moisi, of the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations, agrees Lagarde has what is takes to be the Fund's next chief.

"She's a strong, convincing, reliable lady who has an extremely good international image, with English that is perfect," said Moisi.

Observers say one of Lagarde's biggest strengths is that she is a woman in a male-dominated institution. More than that - she is the IMF's first female managing director. Her predecessor, fellow Frenchman Dominique Strauss-Kahn, resigned last month after being charged with sexually assaulting a hotel employee.

Unlike Strauss-Kahn, Lagarde is not a trained economist. But another French Institute analyst, Philippe Moreau Defarges, says she'll be able to handle one of the IMF's biggest headaches - the financial meltdown in Greece, which threatens to spread to other eurozone countries.

"She's up to the task for one reason; around her are many people who are up to the task and there are many people who are ready and able to help her," he said.

The top IMF job has traditionally gone to a European. Emerging economies now want one of their own to take the helm. But they failed to unite behind Lagarde's only challenger - Mexican central banker Agustin Carstens.

Nongovernmental groups like Oxfam International have also criticized what they consider an opaque and undemocratic IMF election process.  Now, says Oxfam France's general director Luc Lampriere, Lagarde must be willing to give emerging economies a major say.

"It puts a very big pressure on Christine Lagarde as director now to really decide and play a key role in changing this forever," he said.

Analyst Moreau Defarges, for one, believes Lagarde will listen to developing countries.  But he has not doubt she has a tough job ahead of her.

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