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Lagarde: A trailblazing fixture on the world stage

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

France's Christine Lagarde, who in June 2011 became the first woman to head the International Monetary Fund, on Wednesday saw her home raided by French police in a probe into her handling of a high-profile scandal when she was a government minister.

The probe concerns Lagarde's 2007 decision to ask an arbitration panel to rule on a dispute between disgraced tycoon Bernard Tapie, also a former government minister, and the collapsed bank Credit Lyonnais.

The silver-haired and silver-tongued Lagarde, 57, has made a career of breaking glass ceilings.

She skipped a French establishment career after getting her law degree and instead joined the Paris office of prestigious US legal consulting giant Baker & McKenzie.

Over 18 years she pushed her way up to become chairwoman of the company's global executive committee in 1999, a first for the firm, and then of its global strategy committee in 2004.

Then in 2007 she became France's and the G7's first female finance minister, earning a reputation for grace under fire during the global economic crisis.

Lagarde was born in Paris to academic parents and was brought up in the port city of Le Havre.

A synchronized swimming champion as a teenager, she studied law and political science in university.

After being admitted to the Paris bar in 1981, she joined Baker & McKenzie, specialising in labour and anti-trust issues as well as takeovers.

There she quickly rose in the ranks to become a partner in the Paris office, before moving to Chicago to ultimately oversee global operations.

Lagarde entered politics in June 2005 when she was invited to join the government of then president Jacques Chirac as trade minister.

Two years later Chirac's successor Nicolas Sarkozy named her agriculture minister, and then in an unexpected reshuffle appointed her finance minister.

Though no economist but with a near flawless command of English, she proved herself extremely deft at dealing with the financial crisis that erupted that year in the United States and quickly spread.

As then head of the eurozone finance ministers, she was a leading figure in Europe's response to the crisis and a linchpin of Sarkozy's government.

In 2011, with France in charge of the G20 group of the world's largest economies, she became the pointwoman on continued efforts to combat the effects of the crisis and reform the global financial system.

That all made her a fixture on the world stage, with close relations to counterparts from Beijing to Brasilia which underpinned the support she got when the IMF position suddenly came open, after her French colleague Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York on charges of alleged sexual assault.

Complimented by some for her smooth handling of the monumental financial crisis and criticised by others for stubbornness, she is a respected negotiator and political consensus-builder.

She made only a handful of political public faux pas in office in France, and was even mentioned as a possible successor to Sarkozy -- though she had not shown that kind of political ambition.

Indeed, she lost her only attempt at standing for election in Paris in 2008.

Accusations of conflict of interest have clouded her reputation.

A special French court found Lagarde's decision to send the Tapie dispute to arbitration to be questionable, which resulted in the state paying out 400 million euros ($500 million) to the disgraced former football club owner over the 1993 sale of the Adidas sports group.

In addition to the Tapie affair, which a special French court found Lagarde's decision to send the dispute to arbitration to be questionable, eyebrows were also raised about an investment by Lagarde in a start-up led by the son of a state-run agency boss she appointed.

On the personal side, Lagarde is the divorced mother of two sons, both in their 20s, and has a regular companion in Marseille businessman Xavier Giocanti, an old schoolmate who brought two children from his own previous marriage to the couple.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130320/lagarde-trailblazing-fixture-the-world-stage