Christine Lagarde was the first woman to lead the IMF, but that doesn't mean she should be admired

Nabila Ramdani

Listen to the hugely expensive public relations speak that is such a big part of global finance nowadays and you will regularly hear Christine Lagarde described as a “rock star”. She has now resigned as the first woman head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after being nominated to become the pioneering female boss of the European Central Bank.

The “first female” tag has also been used time and time again during the 63-year-old’s career. I originally met her at the British Embassy in Paris soon after she became France’s first woman finance minister in 2007. She did not mention her partner, the businessman Xavier Giocanti, nor Thomas Lagarde, the father of her two sons, making it clear she was entirely self-made.

Beyond doing so well in traditionally male enclaves, Lagarde was completely at home among the so-called “Anglo-Saxons”. She speaks excellent English, while mixing confidently with counterparts from London and New York.

Fashion and fitness are a big part of the public profile carefully forged by the former international synchronised swimmer. Her trademark designer clothes and accessories encompass Wall Street tailored pantsuits, along with an Hermes scarf and handbag.

In this sense, Lagarde has done what hardly any French big shots manage to do, which is to make it outside an often notoriously parochial France. To labour the “rock star” analogy, she is undoubtedly far better known across the United States and Britain than the late French Elvis impersonator Johnny Hallyday ever was.

Lagarde took over the IMF from her disgraced fellow countryman Dominique Strauss-Kahn – a former French minister continually dogged by allegations of sexual and financial impropriety. Unsurprisingly, she focused on the IMF’s image, trying to soften its reputation as a stooge of big business.

During Lagarde’s speeches, there were constant references to her swimming career, and the need for dedication and patience. There was a move away from fiscal austerity as Lagarde expanded debate on income disparity. Gender equality and environmental responsibility were also promoted.

But before getting carried away with the glossy myths, it has to be said that international monetary cooperation was by no means assured under Lagarde. The fraught relations between America and China are a prime example. Their trading disputes continue to cast a giant shadow over the global economy.

The reality is that Lagarde failed to stand up to erratic world leaders such as US President Donald Trump, and that is because she is largely sympathetic to their macho posturing.

The name Nicolas Sarkozy is crucial to unraveling what Lagarde really stands for. Her loyalty to the former president of France went far beyond the call of duty, to the extent that she once sent him a very personal note saying: “Use me for as long as it suits you, and suits your plans and casting call.”

The excruciating handwritten correspondence was leaked to Le Monde as recently as 2013, and also included the pledge: “If you decide to use me, I need you as a guide and a supporter: without a guide, I may be ineffective and without your support I may lack credibility.”

Needless to say, such slavish devotion to a hugely controversial politician did not end well for Lagarde. The note was found by fraud investigators who have been pursuing Sarkozy and his entourage constantly ever since he lost his presidential immunity from prosecution when his single term in office ended in 2012.

Four years later, Lagarde received a criminal conviction for negligence for failing to challenge a €404m (£365m) taxpayer-funded payout to the businessman Bernard Tapie over the sale of his stake in the sports firm Adidas to the Credit Lyonnais bank.

The complicated case rumbled on for years, but as far as Lagarde was concerned, it displayed her willingness to keep a Sarkozy crony happy with huge amounts of cash. As is usual for white-collar establishment criminals in France, she did not receive any formal punishment, and was left to get on with her career.

Sarkozy is himself now an indicted criminal suspect, who is implicated in approaching a dozen serious corruption enquiries. Despite all his legal problems, he actually put himself forward as a presidential candidate for 2017, and has just released a self-serving autobiography called Passions.

Former Gaullist conservative colleagues of Lagarde irrevocably linked with sleaze also include Sarkozy’s erstwhile prime minister, Francois Fillon. He and his British wife, Penelope Fillon, are due to stand trial next year for pretending she was a parliamentary assistant for more than a decade, so as to extort hundreds of thousands of Euros from the public purse. Like Sarkozy, the Fillons deny any wrongdoing.

Jacques Chirac, president of France for 12 years up until 2007 and the politician who appointed Lagarde to the rank of Knight of the Legion d’honneur in 2000, was given a two-year suspended prison sentence in 2011 for diverting public funds, abuse of trust and illegal conflict of interest. The offences related to Chirac’s time as Mayor of Paris.

Such antecedents place Lagarde firmly at the centre of a thoroughly shady clique of male politicians who, despite the allegations against them, continue to prosper within a French system known for its amorality.

Their reputations are not dissimilar to the kind of bankers Lagarde now works with. Yes, the female fiscal “rock star” has done well to haul herself up a greasy and frequently dishonourable career pole, but this by no means suggests she is somebody to be admired.