Swimming Upstream

Meet Christine Lagarde, Europe's consensus choice to replace Dominique Strauss-Kahn as chief of the IMF.

PARIS, France — French government ministers can come across as remarkably close to some of their stereotypes. Some are haughty and pander to their bosses -- the prime minister and president -- like royal courtesans. Many talk eloquently but with little substance, as though speaking well is more important than saying something meaningful. And a few act as though they believe that, as a result of their positions, they are virtually untouchable.

Then there is Christine Lagarde, universally seen as the front-runner -- and Europe's strongest bet -- to become the next managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As France's finance minister since 2007, she was the first woman to ever oversee a G-8 economy, and yet she comes across in one-on-one encounters as down to earth, warm, engaging, and a bit quirky. (In a film, Annette Bening would play her perfectly.) Surely, few other government ministers are vegetarians, have ever competed in synchronized swimming from early adolescence, or had a mother who moonlighted as a rally car driver.

Those who interact with Lagarde often sense that her professionalism was shaped as much by the United States as by France. While she grew up in de Gaulle's France, she spent a year at Holton-Arms, a girls' school in Bethesda, Maryland, and she did a stint as an intern in Washington for William Cohen, a Republican congressman. Like many others, she failed to gain admission to France's prestigious École Nationale d'Administration, an elite finishing school for much of the political class, instead choosing to study law and garnering an offer from the Chicago office of the prominent international law firm Baker & McKenzie.

These days, she makes a special effort to avoid jargon, lingo, and wonkiness, and she speaks nearly flawless English, which is extremely rare for top French government officials of her generation. How well? She not only tangled with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show a couple of years back, but also managed to convey some meaningful points about international economics. More recently, on May 25, she even launched a Twitter account to support her IMF candidacy.

The combination of her quirky upbringing with a single mother, after the death of her father during adolescence, and the decisions she made to repeatedly return to the United States has led to her comfort with being something of an outsider in the workplace. In Chicago, Lagarde was a rare female attorney in a male-dominated law firm -- and she rose to the top, eventually becoming its first-ever chairwoman. She so fully inculcated in herself the pragmatic American professional culture that she proved to be an oddity amid her highly formatted French colleagues when she returned to Paris full time after she was recruited into government in 2005 by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. Still, she rose from deputy minister of foreign trade under then-President Jacques Chirac to become agriculture minister two years later, before the incoming President Nicolas Sarkozy, impressed with her can-do spirit, tasked her with running the economy.

The competence and pragmatism that Lagarde has shown in her current position help to explain why she has won the strong personal endorsement of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "I actually know her. I admire her.... I am a strong supporter of qualified women, of which she is certainly one, being given the opportunities to lead international organizations," Clinton said on May 26. (The United States will not officially highlight its preferred candidate until after June 10, once all the candidates have been official declared.)

Clinton is hardly Lagarde's only fan. She had a constructive working relationship with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French former head of the IMF whose resignation over shocking sex crimes charges in New York has led to her candidacy; and her counterparts in Europe see her as an able and stabilizing interlocutor for a French president whom some see as erratic. Sarkozy expressed his confidence at last week's G-8 summit in Deauville, France, noting that though it is not up to a handful of the world's wealthiest countries to chose Strauss-Kahn's successor, the issue came up in bilateral discussions and "everyone" thinks that Lagarde "would make a very good managing director."

The idea that Sarkozy might replace a former political rival, Strauss-Kahn, with one of his closest ministers and simultaneously keep a French person at the helm of the IMF should bring him special satisfaction. The question is whether the unpopular president can afford to let her go.

When Lagarde first took over the country's finances, she appeared to be a strikingly free market choice for France -- at least until the global economic crisis hit in 2008. An economic model that she lamented for being too rigid proved to be fairly recession-resistant as the crisis cascaded across Western Europe. (To her credit, she readily recognized the need to adapt to circumstances, tolerating a sudden spike in government spending to fund much-needed economic stimulus.) While unemployment in the United States nearly doubled and el paro tripled in neighboring Spain, France's chomage rose only by about 20 percent. France's debt ballooned, as in nearly all Old World economies, but its real estate market didn't collapse and there was no broad wave of foreclosures. And significantly, France's public deficit, which jumped from 3.3 percent in 2008 to 7.5 percent in 2009, is now expected to be around 5.6 percent this year (thanks to increasing fiscal discipline), with a return to pre-crisis levels by 2013 or so. Despite the many challenges of recent years, Lagarde has remained atop France's Finance Ministry since 2007, bringing remarkable stability to a position that has long seemed like an ejection seat. Hers is the longest stint at the helm since 1974, and it amounts to an eternity in a position held by seven different ministers in the seven years prior to her arrival.

Internationally, Lagarde has promoted efforts to develop a renewed international regulatory framework aimed at preventing a return to the speculative excesses that propelled the crisis, and she has promoted a combination of greater fiscal restraint for Europe's most debt-laden countries while also pushing to secure resources to keep them afloat and bolster faith in the euro. Her activeness and pragmatism in navigating through economic crises helped to earn her the Financial Times distinction as "European Finance Minister of the Year" in 2009, while Time, the Wall Street Journal, and Forbes have ranked her among the most powerful women on Earth in recent years.

But one internal obstacle could act as a deal breaker for Lagarde's aspirations to take over at the IMF. A judge is slated to declare on June 10 -- the same day candidates are finalized -- whether French justice will pursue a case against Lagarde for overstepping her authority. The issue in question involves her decision to settle out of court with a prominent French businessman, Bernard Tapie, much of whose wealth was confiscated in the 1990s in relation to a corruption affair that sent him to prison for a brief stint. A judge later voided the confiscation, but its subsequent valuation remained a source of debate.

Ignoring the recommendation of some in her ministry, Lagarde decided in 2007 to settle the case by ordering the return of Tapie's money, plus extensive interest, from state coffers, as well as a settlement believed to be worth approximately 210 million euros, including 45 million euros in damages. A flamboyant former minister in a Socialist government, the Trump-esque Tapie is the sort of financier whom few French people have much sympathy for, especially these days. The fact that he supported the conservative Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential race has also raised suspicions in France. Lagarde argues that her decision to end the Tapie saga is now being used by Socialists simply to undermine the government, rather than because she did anything wrong. She also almost certainly resolved the Tapie case at Sarkozy's behest. Still, if the judge decides to take the investigation forward, it could make it difficult for the IMF, under the current circumstances, to choose someone who is under a legal cloud at home.

If Lagarde is ultimately selected, she may prove to be as much of a fish out of water in Washington as she has been throughout her career -- and the lifelong swimmer just might continue to advance upstream.



Revenge of the Tiger Children

China's young, spoiled kids are rejecting traditional values. But can the state make Mao or Confucius seem relevant again -- before it's too late?

View a slide show of China's little emperors. 

HONG KONG – Samuel Johnson, the great English author, once quipped that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." In today's China, however, state-mandated patriotism is not seen as such a refuge, but merely as one among a range of options being test-marketed by a ruling Communist Party anxious to install a code of values to replace the discarded tenets of Lenin, Marx, and Mao.

Nowadays, of course, a government seeking to clarify its nation's values is nothing out of the ordinary. Prime Minister Gordon Brown sought to reach a definition of "Britishness" for the 21st century (as usual with the British, the result was a muddle, including tolerance, liberty, fair play, and civic duty). And in France, Nicolas Sarkozy has been engaged in an ongoing debate about Gallic values, particularly the country's devotion to secularism.

Both of these efforts were manifestations of a growing unease among ordinary British and French people at what they see as a failure by immigrants, particularly Muslim immigrants, to assimilate into the national culture. The fears that have stimulated China's search for values, however, are purely homegrown: a young generation that seems adrift between the rabid nationalism of Internet chat rooms and a globalized materialism unconnected to traditional family responsibilities.

So worrying is the behavior of today's "little emperors" -- the products of the country's one-child families -- that Beijing is preparing a law to impose a legal duty on young people to visit and care for their aged parents. Indeed, the proposed amendment to the "Law on Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Aged" would allow elderly people to go to court to claim their right to be physically and mentally looked after by their children.

Filial piety has long been a tenet of traditional Chinese culture and is a core concept of Confucianism. Today, however, many young people not only shirk this duty, but insist that it is actually the duty of parents to do all they can to care for them, even as adults. Small wonder, then, that a popular insult hurled at the current generation of young Chinese is to call them ken lao zu -- the generation that sucks the blood of their parents, i.e., the vampire generation.

So how are today's young Chinese to be motivated? Patriotism is one possible tool. But because any sign of Beijing manipulating nationalist sentiment is bound to set alarm bells ringing among China's neighbors, the sort of patriotism it is peddling to the young is mostly kitsch, not xenophobic bile. In Chongqing, for example, Bo Xilai, the city party secretary, has been enforcing a Maoist cultural revival in schools and public workplaces. People are called upon to sing Mao-era "red songs," and Bo himself frequently sends text messages to his underlings that are strewn with quotes from Mao's Little Red Book. The quasi-sacramental impact of these efforts is fawned over to the extent that Chongqing's television stations and newspapers now point to the singing of Maoist songs as a cure for depression and other mental illnesses.

Another device that party leaders have been deploying as a way to tame the powerful forces that modernization has unleashed -- lack of morals and identity, rampant materialism -- is Confucianism. So confident was the leadership that a revival of Confucianism was a way forward that, in January, a monument to the sage was installed in front of the Forbidden City in Tiananmen Square. A 31-foot-tall bronze statue of Confucius sat just across from the mausoleum of Mao, who had once demonized the sage and the traditional values for which he stood.

From the start, this state-promoted Confucian revival has had detractors within the party hierarchy. The sayings of Confucius that emphasize social order, family harmony, and deference to the existing political system are no doubt perfectly agreeable to today's party elders, whatever their ideological leanings. But the problem with Confucius is that awkward elements in his thinking -- his stress on the virtuous rule of the government and the possibility of losing the "Mandate of Heaven" through which a ruler possesses the legitimate right to govern -- kept bubbling to the surface as intellectuals explored the full range of Confucian thoughts, not just the fragments offered by the party. So, in the dark of night earlier this month, that Confucius statue disappeared from Tiananmen Square without any public explanation.

Although both patriotism and Confucianism have their obvious limits in the party's eyes, they are still superior to the other system of values that some Chinese intellectuals seek to promote: universal values. Indeed, an ideological debate has been smoldering across China for the past five years about whether universal values -- freedom, democracy, and human rights -- have any role at all to play in today's China.

That debate reached its peak in 2008 when, following the Sichuan earthquake of that year, the Guanzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekend published an editorial praising the government's actions in response to the tragedy, singling out "its commitments to its own people and to the whole world with respect to universal values." That mention of universal rights enraged party hard-liners, who feared the possibility of democracy protests breaking out in the run-up to the Beijing Olympic Games. When the games ended, the party's official mouthpiece, the People's Daily, denounced the supporters of universal values as people trying to westernize China into a place that would no longer uphold "socialism with Chinese characteristics."

So China's search for values continues, clumsily and uncertainly, with no school in the lead. Even the leadership seems uncertain about which direction to take, though the soon-to-be president Xi Jinping did offer praise for Bo Xilai's Maoist revivalism on his recent visit to Chongqing. How that search ends is important, for the values that China eventually identifies and adheres to in the future matters not only to China, but for the wider world. For these values -- whatever they are -- will help to shape the actions, and the reactions, of the new Asian superpower.