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France's Finance and Economy Minister Christine Lagarde is expected to replace Dominique Strauss-Kahn as head of the International Monetary Fund. (RICARDO MORAES/REUTERS)
France's Finance and Economy Minister Christine Lagarde is expected to replace Dominique Strauss-Kahn as head of the International Monetary Fund. (RICARDO MORAES/REUTERS)

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Is France's Christine Lagarde the one to rescue the global economy? Add to ...

She will soon, by some calculations, be the most powerful woman in the world: As the first female head of the world's most important financial body, the International Monetary Fund, she will hold the fates of nations in her hand, in a moment when hopes of a near-term global recovery are waning.

So it is a bit disarming to meet Christine Lagarde - 55, seated in the baroque vastness of her 17th-century official office in Paris, dining on a vegetarian salad prepared by one of her personal chefs and dressed in impeccable Chanel - and to be greeted with hearty laughter over a self-effacing joke about her ignorance of northern Canadian dress.

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"Is it what, like, polar clothes? I'll have to dig into my wardrobe and find a pullover or something," she says of a planned visit, in flawless, shopping-mall American English, followed by a knowing untruth: "I never seem to get these things right."

The fact is, Ms. Lagarde always gets these things right. If you ask the leaders of dozens of countries why they are backing the current French Finance Minister for this most crucial job, they will describe similar encounters. She has an extraordinary ability to win people over.

Her personal style sends varied messages: To Britons, she is the rare continental European who has somehow mastered the art of small talk. To Germans, she is the rare economic leader who actually seems human. To North Americans, she is just like one of us.

In France, however, people tend to think of her less as a personality than as a set of archetypes: As a Frenchwoman who spent crucial years in the U.S. and speaks flawless English, she must represent collusion with Anglo-American, free-market capitalism. As a former national synchronized-swimming champion, she must be a loyal, precise team player in President Nicolas Sarkozy's cabinet. As an exercise fanatic who sleeps a few hours a night and seemingly devotes zero time to her family, she must have an almost robotic discipline. And as one of France's most elegant, well-dressed women, she must be able to get away with anything.

None of those images is terribly accurate. But they are the expectations that Ms. Lagarde carries with her in her bid to become the next head of the IMF.

On some levels it's shocking the IMF would consider her for the job that had been held by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, another high-flying French politician given to lavish tastes, until an alleged incident in a New York hotel led to his arrest on sex-assault charges on May 14.

Surely, the 187-nation organization, humbled by scandal, would look further afield - especially after it spent a decade pledging to select its next chief from the developing world.

Surely, France, of all places, could not have a lock on the global economy.

And yet when the Washington-based IMF makes its final decision at the end of this month, Ms. Lagarde is almost certain to be selected, by a strong majority, as the next managing director. While there will be other candidates, including Mexico's central-bank governor, Agustin Carstens, the world's financial leaders widely agree Ms. Lagarde is the only person for the job. Even the Chinese, usually enraged by Euro-American domination, have endorsed her.

"We're in the strange situation of having another European in line for this job, but a European whose personal and professional qualities make her almost impossible to compete with," Russian deputy finance minister Sergei Storchak told Reuters on Thursday. "She has the right background, perfect English and the ability to lead negotiations."

Yet those are among the few things that are really solidly known about Ms. Lagarde's prospects as an IMF leader: She's a terrific, warm speaker and a charming, persuasive negotiator, especially in English (in French she's actually cooler and more removed). Her knowledge of macroeconomics and banking is superb, and she is extremely well briefed on international finance.

Yet she is not an economist. There is no body of papers outlining her positions on key global matters. And she has been vague, even contradictory, on the crucial issue of the moment, the European economic crisis.

Mr. Strauss-Kahn was a bold reformer, pushing the IMF into the developing world, and away from the laissez-faire rigidities that had earned it that world's enmity; he had been quietly pushing Europe to deal with the crisis's underlying causes. Whether Ms. Lagarde is either interested or capable of following in that path is unknown.

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