Christine Lagarde

When French president Nicolas Sarkozy asked Christine Lagarde to join his cabinet in 2007, as Minister for Economy, Industry and Employment, she was already the first ever female Chairman of Chicago-based global law firm Baker & McKenzie. She is a respected antitrust and labour lawyer and today, as first female Managing Director of the Intenational Monetary Fund, she’s considered the 9th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine (2011) and part of a very exclusive club of women that include Dilma Rousseff or Angela Merkel. She certainly looks the part, poised and elegant, calm and reassuring, reflexive and charming, her skin looking permanently tanned in contrast with her silver hair.

After Dominique Strauss-Kahn‘s very public downfall and resignation, as a result of a sex scandal  -to the deep embarrassment of France; Christine Lagarde was immediately mentioned as a possible successor, and she received the support of Britain, India, the US, Russia, China and Germany. The Telegraph once described her as “the woman with no enemies”. From her first day on the job she had very complicated issues on the table, and her no-nonsense style was evident from the start and some statements she made angered many, especially in Greece. It was in an interview with British newspaper The Guardian, where she basically described Greeks as rampant tax dodgers and ruled out any breathing space from the austerity measures the country faced.

She is a hard-working woman, with a strong and elegant presence, firm in her convictions and obviously someone who speaks her mind. She is an outsider to politics in France, because she did not attend the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, where most high-ranking French officials and politicians are groomed. She also never distinguished in math, being a Managing Director of the IMF who is more a lawyer than an economist. Being an outsider gives her a better perspective of things probably.

She was born Christine Madeleine Odette Lallouette, and her parents were both teachers. She studied in a girls’ school in Maryland, US; she got a degree in Law in Paris and a Master’s Degree in political science. She also worked as an intern at the United States Capitol, as congressional assistant to William Cohen. She has divorced twice, but no one really knows much about her two ex-husbands. They are not even mentioned in her official biography, which shows how fiercely she controls her public image. She has two sons, is a vegetarian and never drinks, although she did have a glass of champagne in an airport when she found out that had been appointed IMF boss.

Being French, there’s the issue of the elegance too. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who laughed at a similar question once, asking the interviewer if she’d ever ask that question to a man; Christine Lagarde has no problem talking about her wardrobe. In an interview with Vogue, she confessed that gets her clothes from three places mostly: Chanel, Ventilo and Austin Reed.

One of my favorite phrases by Christine Lagarde is that men, when left to themselves, make mess of things. Which is, well, as we all know, completely true. She is a strong believer in gender equality and has said that women are better than men when it comes to managing tasks and common sense. This is why she wants to hire many more women than men while she’s MD of the IMF.

She was always an overachiever. Many don’t know that as a teenager, Christine was a member of the French national synchronized swimming team, for example, or that she sang backing vocals in a ska band called “Les Messages Mixe” before getting married.

As Managing Director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde faces incredible challenges, like world economies on the brink of collapse, especially in Europe. She still has four years to go, but it will not be an easy ride for sure. Saving the Euro will be no easy task. The journey will be full of dangers and crises. And we need strong leaders in times of uncertainty.

Will Miss Lagarde be one of those leaders we so desperately need? Will this elegant and competent French woman be able to help fix the mess that we men created?

About Elegance

Even if we tried really hard, we would not find too many examples of elegance in politics. And I’m not referring exclusively only physical elegance. I mean elegance of any kind. It is almost as if beauty and refinement were at odds with the exercise of public office. I once met a Spanish female politician who spent most of her time travelling around Europe. She had not been to the city center of Madrid in about 3 years, she simply hadn’t had the time, so her husband bought her clothes. You can imagine what her wardrobe looked like.

Among women, Elena Salgado, the former Spanish Minister of Economy and Finance has been a recent notable exception. Christine Lagarde, the sophisticated and stylish managing director of the International Monetary Fund is another. We have Nancy Pelosi. And then, of course, we have the incredibly elegant Queen of England.

It’s not easy to find elegance today anywhere. Back in the early days of air travel, gentlemen had to take off their hats to enter the plane, they served martinis, you had a decent meal. Of course it was not all exactly as perfect as it looks in movies, but still, today we fly packed like chickens, the person next to you might be wearing bermudas and sandals and the whole experience is frequently a nightmare. Somewhere along the way elegance went missing.

Politics today, more than ever, has become a sort of show. We watch carefully crafted speeches, we read news that in part have been scripted as well, we hear and see what they want us to hear and see. Press releases and press conferences frequently frame the debate, journalists are frequently happy copying and pasting. Politicians have learnt the art of manipulating the press and the press will repackage it, throw it at us and we will swallow it in the papers or in the evening news. The media promotes this, of course, because for them reality has to be, in a way, a show as well.

For all politicians borrow from the entertainment business, however, it seems they have not yet learnt that we love well-dressed people as well. There is something about an elegant man or woman that inspires respect and admiration. It is not scientific, but we, for some reason it seems that we tend to lend more credibility to someone who is impeccably dressed. We will more readily associate higher ideas to better-dressed people. We discriminate even if we don’t want to. We want to be seduced.

There are also not that many handsome men or beautiful women in politics. We do have the attractive and charismatic Prime Ministers of Thailand, Yingluck Shinawatra, and of Denmark, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, but that’s as close as we get. Maybe Jay Leno is right when he said “politics is just show business for ugly people”.

I have written this article, Bring Back Those Elegant Men, as a reflection on physical elegance in politics.

My latest article is also about elegance, but not in politics. I absolutely loved discovering La Société des Ambianceurs et Personnes Élégantes, a subculture specific of the cities of Kinshasa and Brazzaville in Congo. I found it truly inspiring and quite relevant to any debate on elegance.

Since I’m on the issue of elegance, I would also like to draw attention to three other articles I wrote some time ago. In one of them,The Emperor’s (Funny) Clothes, I take a look an incredibly intriguing politician, Muammar Gaddafi, who was the eccentric ruthless dictator of Libya. The article is not about politics, but strictly about his unique sense of fashion. I also dedicated an article to his famous female guard, who captured the imagination of people worldwide. The article is titled Lipstick and Fatigues.

Lastly, I also wrote a piece about the young Palestinian fashion designer Omar Joseph Nasser-Khoury, one of the most interesting talents to emerge from the Arab world. He combines the motifs and the refined cross-stitching, typical of his home land, with bold tailoring, to create modern designs.