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Among Men How Christine Lagarde Beat the Odds to Head IMF

Christine Lagarde is the first woman ever to lead the International Monetary Fund. As part of her role in helping to save the euro, she's had to go head to head with some of the world's most important countries. She's not afraid of the fight and she doesn't give up easily.

"Mr. Ambassador," says Christine Lagarde, "I have a story for you."

She is sitting in the garden of Latitude 13°, a chic boutique hotel in the Malawian capital, Lilongwe. In front of her, leaning back in his chair, is Peter Woeste, the German ambassador to the country, an impressively self-confident man.

He has brought along his counterparts from Japan, China, Ireland and France. But at this moment, he is the center of attention. Feeling flattered, Woeste's confidence seems to grow as he sits in his chair.

Lagarde begins telling her story. It's about her 57th birthday, which she celebrated on Mauritius around New Year's. "There was a lot of diving and swimming," she says. "What, in Germany?" Woeste asks disdainfully. "Oh, you mean Mauritius. Well, that's reassuring."

Lagarde smiles, granting him his joke. She is well-traveled and sure-footed on the international stage. She knows ministers and national leaders throughout the world, and she is on a first-name basis with most of them. That is her trump card: No matter whom she's dealing with, Lagarde always knows someone who is more important.

She looks Woeste straight in the eye. "Do you know what was delivered to my room on the morning of my birthday?" she asks. This time she doesn't give him the chance to interject anything before she gets to the point of her story. "A large bouquet from (German Finance Minister) Wolfgang Schäuble, with a handwritten note."

Madame Lagarde is traveling in Africa. On her seven-day trip, from East to West and South to North, she will visit three extremely poor countries that rarely make it into the news: Malawi, Ivory Coast and Mauritania. She wants to talk about the devaluation of the Malawian kwacha, the cocoa harvest in Ivory Coast and the future of the Mauritanian fishing industry. None of this has much to do with Europe.

A Curse and Opportunity

Still, the managing director of the Washington-based International Monetary Fund (IMF) has recently spent more time in Europe than she had expected, attending special sessions of the European Union, crisis meetings, EU finance minister conferences and meetings of EU leaders. She has participated in many a late-night session and is likely to attend many more.

In the wake of Italy's parliamentary elections, the world is worried about the euro once again. Italy, the third-largest economy in the euro zone, faces the prospect of political gridlock. The parliament is divided, there are no clear majorities in the Senate, interest rates are rising and the Moody's rating agency is threatening to downgrade Italy's credit rating. There are growing fears, once again, of an uncontrollable avalanche of debt and the possible end of the euro.

The euro is both a curse and an opportunity for Lagarde. Can she save the common currency? It's the question she is asked wherever she goes, even Africa. And whenever it's asked, it is accompanied by an underlying doubt as to whether the French IMF chief is tough enough for the task. Will she speak her mind to fellow Europeans? Will she be as resolute as the IMF has always been in Africa whenever it imposed its relentless austerity programs?

Eventually her conversations always turn to Germany and her best friend "Wolf-gang." He is her most important partner, and her anchor in Germany -- the country upon which the future of the euro is dependent. At the end of the day, the success of IMF chief Christine Lagarde also hinges on the euro.

Europeans Lack Will To Help Each Other

The fund has approved a €40 billion ($52 billion) bailout deal for Greece, and Lagarde has also collected $430 billion worldwide for a global bailout fund, just in case things take a sharp turn for the worse. In doing so, she has accommodated Europe. But Europe doesn't really need the money -- it's rich enough to help itself.

This is what distinguishes the current crisis from earlier crises the IMF has faced, including the Asian crisis and the debt crisis in Latin America. At the time, the IMF came to the aid of countries with no funds of their own. This time, though, the problem involves countries that have enough money but lack the political will to help each other.

The money she is promising isn't intended to remove the pressure on Europe to take action. On the contrary, her weapon is the threat that the IMF will withdraw from Europe unless it lives up to its commitments to reduce debt. Her goal is to force Europe to take a more active role, even if this is likely to be more expensive than planned.

Balancing Act

It is a balancing act between proximity and distance, absence and presence. Lagarde has to help Europe, because she depends on Europe's success. At the same time, she has to give the Europeans the feeling that she can also do without them.

This is one reason she is in Africa, in the midst of the euro crisis. It's more than just an obligation. She wants to demonstrate that she can afford to do it. Her trip could also be interpreted as a show of strength.

She is accompanied by six people: her life partner, Xavier Giocanti; Antoinette Sayeh, the head of her African department; two bodyguards; her press spokesman, Christoph Rosenberg, a native Bavarian; and her assistant, Gilles Bauche, who has brought the IMF's collective knowledge for the trip -- data equivalent to 8 pounds of printed paper that he keeps on his iPad mini.

It's a small, committed group. Lagarde needs them to make a strong impression, but also, even more importantly, to demonstrate her independence.

After a lunch reception with the ambassadors, she is standing in the hotel garden, engaged in small talk. She mentions her speech, the first during her Africa trip, which she gave in the morning to 350 invited guests of the Malawian industry association.

In addition to the major issues relating to the Malawian macro-economy, she also talked about men. She had read on the flight that the men of Malawi were tired of hearing their country referred to as the "warm heart of Africa," and that they wanted to become manlier. The article prompted her to issue an appeal: "All I can say to you is this: Please, stay just the way you are!"

It was a surprise to everyone, which Lagarde now finds extremely amusing. Many experts had worked on the manuscript, a product of at least 10 days of work: a speechwriter, the AFR department for issues relating to Africa, employees with the OMD, or Office of the Managing Director, and the External Relations Department, or EXR, which had coordinated everything. They had chosen Malawian expressions and African proverbs, creating a manuscript that covered eight single-spaced typewritten pages. But the comment about men wasn't in the speech, and none of her staff members knew about it. Nor was it in the Financial Times, says Lagarde.

Rosenberg, her press spokesman, joins the group. He, too, worked on the manuscript. During the speech, he sat in the audience with a pen and the manuscript to note any possible deviations, in the hope of being able to post the transcript of the speech online as unaltered as possible.

He had also been looking at his watch, and had noted that Lagarde had spoken for 50 minutes, while the speech in the manuscript was only intended to last 25 minutes. The comments about Malawian men also took Rosenberg by surprise.

"It went well," Rosenberg says now, praising her for giving "a very personal speech."

First Woman to Lead IMF

Lagarde has been his boss for a year and a half, the first woman at the head of the IMF, an institution in which men hold 80 percent of management positions.

Lagarde once studied law, and for five years she led Baker & McKenzie, one of America's largest law firms, the first woman in that position as well. She was already a star at the time. But is she an expert on economics? She applied to the French elite school ENA twice and was turned down both times, and her later record as French finance minister was mixed.

Can this woman lead the IMF? She is responsible for about $1 trillion in available credit. One has to know a lot to be the head of the IMF, an organization with 188 member states. The job involves questions of monetary policy, money market activity and credit conditions. It isn't easy to keep an eye on everything at the IMF.

Lagarde can't conduct major economic debates like her predecessor Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was treated as an equal by the IMF's top economists. She doesn't arrive at the meetings with a fixed goal in mind. Instead, she listens a lot and prefers to act as referee, putting her weight behind the best opinion in the group. Is the female instinct at work, or is she just clever?

At any rate, the strategy has made her many friends at the IMF. She listens to her experts, largely adheres to their recommendations and doesn't delve into technical details. This frees her up for the things she does best: to represent the IMF and, most of all, communicate bad news. The vital political questions are her chief concern.

She gives the first interview of her trip in her hotel room. The journalist conducting the interview is from "Top Brass," a popular Malawian television program. Her staff members are worried that there could be some tough questions.

She is a star in Malawi, if only because she is the head of the IMF. But she also stands out when compared with her predecessors, Frenchman Michel Camdessus, the German bureaucrat Horst Köhler and the Spaniard Rodrigo Rato. Only her fellow Frenchman, Strauss-Kahn, equalled her charisma in running this agency -- that is, before a sex scandal with a New York hotel maid forced him to resign.

The "Top Brass" journalist is very nervous. When he tries to ask his first question, he doesn't even manage to pronounce her name properly and immediately begins to flounder. Lagarde gets up, pours him a glass of water and takes a large gulp from the bottle. Then she waits until he has repeated the question.

"Who is Christine Lagarde?" he says, with some difficulty.

"A woman," says Lagarde.

It's her trump card. She always appears on photos from euro meetings. The world's image of the IMF is an image of Lagarde, and it has everyone fascinated: the tall French woman who is running the world's most powerful financial club.

'Girl's Night Out'

She has made it a part of her routine on her many trips to have at least one conversation exclusively with women, no matter where she is. Men, even her life partner Giocanti, are forbidden. She sends Giocanti and a group of other men to a seafood restaurant, along with the "staff" and several Malawian ministers, who tell him dirty jokes about life in Africa over a few bottles of Carlsberg beer and South African wine. Meanwhile, Lagarde and 26 women are sitting next door in the Golden Peacock, a Chinese restaurant, where they are talking about the future and what needs to change in Malawi.

Lagarde refers to these exclusive, women-only meetings as her "girls' night out." It's something she learned from former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who also routinely arranged such meetings with women on her trips abroad. Lagarde believes the strategy has paid off. She learns a lot at the meetings. Women speak very differently, more honestly, she says, when there are no men present. Some men hold this against her, because they feel left out, especially the ones who are accustomed to being included.

On the evening after her "girls' night out," Lagarde is invited to a state banquet at the Kamazu Palace, Malawi's presidential residence, where she is received by "Her Excellency," President Joyce Banda. Lagarde says many nice things about Banda that she would hardly say about a man at such an official event, perhaps with the exception of Wolfgang Schäuble. She calls Banda her friend and praises her for her courage. She has brought along a personal gift, a clay figurine from the south of France, which is meant to symbolize their friendship. The two women embrace.

Then she describes how their friendship began, and how Banda visited her in Washington last summer, when both women happened to have knee injuries. They were sitting at the same table during an official reception, and she secretly handed Banda a heat plaster under the table -- the same thing she had used to alleviate the pain in her knee.

"Ouch, my knee," says the Malawian economics minister, who is sitting at the table with other guests of honor, "I need a plaster."

Having previously served as Malawi's finance minister and having been head of the African Development Bank, Goodall Gondwe is accustomed to being included. This time, though, he feels left out.

"I'm sorry," says Lagarde, "there will be conditionalities."

Using Politeness as a Weapon

She always reacts with charm, moving easily between the various worlds: men, women, France, America, Asia and Africa. Her politeness is her weapon.

Her mother, a strict Catholic school teacher, stressed good manners and was convinced that she had aristocratic roots. Lagarde's father was a university professor. But throughout her life Lagarde's mother was obsessed with the notion of being part of the aristocracy. She conducted genealogical research and, when she was convinced that she had discovered her roots, had a signet ring made with her family's coat of arms. "Whether true or not," says Lagarde, "she had that sort of dignity, that elegance about her."

Her mother was strict, as Lagarde recalls. She showed her "how you eat properly, how your hold yourself at the table, how you behave, how polite you have to be, when to talk, when not to talk, how to dress, how to speak proper French and none of that slang."

It wasn't always pretty. Sometimes there were conflicts, especially when, at 14, she and her friends wanted to buy their clothes at an American military surplus shop, when she thought that the jeans that were sold there were so incredibly "trendy." Her mother was opposed to them. She felt that they weren't right for a lady.

A Year in America

When Lagarde was 17, she spent a year at Holton Arms, a private girls' school in Bethesda, near Washington, where she lived with an American host family. At the school, she wrote an essay about her mother titled "Noblesse Oblige."

In the essay, she described how her mother had once asked her and her three brothers, Luc, Rémi and Olivier, to come into the living room and sit down. Lagarde was 12 at the time, and as the eldest of the four siblings, she was the first to whom her mother turned when she said: "You are now old enough to understand what I have to tell to you. I am an aristocrat, a countess, which will make you a countess and you a count to be, as soon as you turn 18. And when I am dead, you will be a countess and a count."

During her year abroad, the first time she had been away from her mother, she smoked and ate a lot of chocolate ice cream. There were no mobile phones, and telephone calls were expensive. Still, even in America life seemed small and limited to her.

It bothered her that her host parents had to drive her everywhere, and that she couldn't get around on a moped, as she did in France. She thought it was "unbalanced" to be surrounded by nothing but girls at a girls' school. Life in America seemed very organized to her. Her host family had a lot of rules: only one soft drink a day, and she was only allowed to smoke in her bedroom, which was already generous enough. Once, when she brought home a boyfriend who her host father didn't like, she was asked to take part in a crisis meeting.

All of that happened 40 years ago. She went to college and eventually became the chairwoman of Baker & McKenzie. She met some of the world's most powerful people at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which she attended regularly. Then she went into politics, first serving as trade minister and then as agriculture minister. In 2007, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy made her the first woman to head the so-called super-ministry responsible for economics and finance. She had quickly figured out that good manners were invaluable to getting ahead in life.

Wolfgang Schäuble is a case in point. Lagarde is always pleased when someone mentions her friend Schäuble. She says: "I've already heard that you were talking with Wolfgang Schäuble."

A Close Friend in Germany

Last November, she and Schäuble had a major dispute over Greece. Lagarde wanted the Europeans to forgive more of Greece's debt than had been planned, but the Europeans refused. The newspapers reported that the Germans, in particular, were unwilling to take on an even greater burden. Lagarde stood her ground, and the dispute ended in a compromise that she could accept. But the dispute also tested the friendship between Lagarde and Schäuble.

Schäuble is on his way to the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, for a debate on Greece, say members of his staff. He can spare half an hour for a conversation, "but only about Madame Lagarde."

At the time of the conflict over Greece, the German tabloid Bild ran the following headline about Schäuble and Lagarde: "Greece Causes Falling Out for the Euro Dream Couple. An Intimate Political Friendship -- Broken, Fini!"

"That's nonsense," says Schäuble. "We were neither a dream couple, nor do we have a problem with disagreeing once in a while."

He seeks to downplay all the talk of their friendship, perhaps because doing favors for a political friend tends to create suspicions of nepotism. Of course it helps to get along with one's colleagues says Schäuble. Whenever it becomes difficult to reach a decision in the Euro Group, the others tend to look to him and Lagarde for a solution.

When the question of who would succeed Strauss-Kahn as head of the IMF was being addressed in 2011, it was everything but clear that the position would go to a candidate from Europe, as is usually the case. The last three IMF managing directors had ended their five-year terms prematurely: Köhler because he became Germany's president; Rato, who stepped down for personal reasons; and Strauss-Kahn following his sex scandal. Some people had had enough of Europeans heading the IMF.

As Schäuble recalls, it was clear to him at the time that there could be only one European candidate: Lagarde. "Christine is a strong woman, she has a French woman's elegance, and she brings together all of the abilities and competency needed for the job."

She has often given him gifts. She sent him flowers when he was in the hospital, and when he had a cold she gave him a jar of honey from her beehive. She even went to Germany to give a speech at his 70th birthday party. Birthday presents aren't that important, says Schäuble. "But when we have time, we also talk about other things." He says that he sometimes even asks her to a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic.

'The French Can Be Proud of Her'

Lagarde has more leeway with Schäuble than other people. The two recently joked about his disability -- an assassination attempt in 1990 left him paralyzed -- saying that they were running a marathon together in the euro crisis, with Schäuble using his arms and Lagarde her legs. "She is very charming," Schäuble gushes. "She can do as she pleases with anyone. And the things that she shouldn't do she would never do in the first place. The French can be proud of her."

It has become her trademark, being the tall French woman, with her jewelry, her elegance, her good posture, her white hair and her height (1.80 meters, or 5'11").

When she became the French finance minister in 2007, her fellow Frenchmen weren't necessarily pleased about the appointment. She had made a few unfortunate remarks at the time. In the midst of the energy crisis, she had suggested that the French ride their bikes more, while she sat in her official limousine. It sounded out of touch, and it reminded the French of their former Queen Marie Antoinette, who supposedly said, shortly before the beginning of the French Revolution: "If the poor have no bread, then let them eat cake."

At the time, her colleagues advised Lagarde to dispense with the rings, necklaces and pins of which she is so fond. As a politician, they said, it's important to look like an everyman, that is, humbler and less conspicuous. At first, she felt that she had no other choice.

Looking back, Lagarde says that switching to politics wasn't easy for her in the beginning. She had spent her entire professional life learning to be herself, and it was also the advice she would give to young girls. She was the boss. But then, suddenly, she had a prime minister and a president as her bosses, and photos were published of her in which the rings had been airbrushed out. She appeared on talk shows without her rings and said that she felt "naked."

She didn't keep it up for long. A few weeks later, she was wearing her rings again, and today she is one of France's most popular public figures. Sonia Criseo, her closest advisor for 18 years, says: "Christine Lagarde is known for her scarves, for her handbags, for her jewelry." She adds that if Lagarde were to go on TV tomorrow "in a pair of jeans and a leather jacket," people would be surprised. "That's not the image they have of Christine Lagarde."

A Strenuous Visit

She has now arrived in Ivory Coast, the second stop on her seven-day Africa trip. Things aren't as pleasant there as they were in Malawi. A security convoy accompanies her as if she were in a war zone, and everywhere there are bodyguards with automatic weapons and ammunition belts hanging over their shoulders. Everything is more strenuous. There are pompous people everywhere, the protocol is rigidly French, and the officials are as self-important as they are incompetent.

The president of the University of Statistics and Economics in Abidjan greets her in front of a full lecture hall with the words: "No matter where the IMF goes, it leaves behind inflation."

At first, Lagarde says nothing in response. For half an hour, she sits behind a bouquet of roses and answers the students' questions about the IMF. Then the university president says that it's time to end the event. It's time for lunch.

This is actually good news for Lagarde. A buffet lunch appears on her schedule as part of the program for the day. For the first time on her Africa trip, she could be on time and wouldn't have to rush from one event to the next. But she sees no reason to bend to the will of her host. "Slow down, Monsieur le maître de cérémonie," says Lagarde. "There are still some questions here."

A murmur goes through the crowd. The students, who had already stood up, sit down again. Did she just refer to their president as a master of ceremonies?

The master of ceremonies, a short, plump man who seemed to be bursting with energy a moment ago, is taken by surprise at his lectern. It isn't what he had expected. "I'll keep it brief," Lagarde continues. "After all, I want to make sure that everyone gets something to eat quickly, especially the master of ceremonies, who is hungry." There is laughter in the room, as Lagarde begins to speak. She talks about loans, conditionality and debt programs. And then she turns to the university president once again."

"It is never pleasant when the IMF comes to a country," she says. "One can compare it with an overweight person who regrets having to lose weight. It isn't pleasant, especially when you are accustomed to good food."

Often Underestimated

She has often been underestimated and treated as a lightweight, as she has at the IMF. During the first year of her term, the French magazine Paris Match printed photos of Lagarde doing yoga in her Georgetown apartment. They were nice photos, but her PR department was concerned. Did they have the gravitas fitting of a serious institution like the IMF? "I'm sort of counter-character, counter-cyclical, counter whatever you want," Lagarde says. "A lawyer in an economists' world, French in the United States. … Counter whatever you want, but then, as a result, people tend to underestimate you."

The question is what she considers to be a good IMF chief, and what she would advise someone who had to slip into her role. Sitting at a hotel pool, she replies by telling an anecdote about Albert Einstein and his driver.

She recalls that, one day, Einstein's driver said to his boss: "Professor, I have been around for such a long time that I know you so well, and I admire you so much that I think I could almost do your job." Einstein thought it would be fun to switch roles. The driver gave a whole presentation on Einstein's theories at the next conference. It was a success, but then someone asked a really complicated, terrible question. He looked into the auditorium, where Einstein was sitting, and said: "You know what, Mr. Smith, this is such a stupid question that I am going to ask my driver to take it."

She pauses to let her story sink in. Then she says: "To put it differently: If you go somewhere, you could take me along. I can sit in the back of the room."

Lagarde had been in office for two months when she triggered the first debate with her critique of under-capitalized banks. Emotions ran high last May when she said that she was more concerned about victims of poverty in Africa than Greeks hit by the financial crisis. And last November she rolled her eyes on live camera when Euro Group President Jean-Claude Juncker, standing next to her, said, to everyone's surprise, that he wanted to give the Greeks more time to pay down their debts. She didn't need a briefing, and she hadn't been forewarned. She simply sat there and rolled her eyes.

Lagarde Seeks to Show IMF Concerned about all Members

She has arrived at the SOS Children's Village in Abobo, a suburb of the economic capital Abidjan, to deliver a check for 2.5 million CFA francs. One of the goals of her trip is to portray the IMF as an organization that concerns itself with all 188 of its member countries, and to ensure that the IMF isn't viewed merely as a "club of the rich," especially now that she has to pay so much attention to the euro.

Dominique Ouattara, the first lady of Ivory Coast, introduces her: "When a country misbehaves and she places it on her blacklist, it has a problem." Then Lagarde steps up to the microphone and, moving to the beat of the drums, says: "Thank you, Mister Tamtam."

She has come to deliver a check, but Lagarde isn't about to hand it over that easily. She has come up with an idea. "Is someone here good at mathematics?" she asks the 200 children sitting on rows of chairs all around her. A number of hands quickly shoot up, and an 11-year-old boy is brought up to the stage. "Now you have to concentrate. There are a lot of zeroes," she says.

The check reads "2,500,000 CFA francs," or about €380,000. The IMF wants to look generous.

The boy begins to read: "Two billion…" But then he stops. The officials look nervous. The boy has just destroyed the point Lagarde was trying to make. Rosenberg, Lagarde's press spokesman, says: "This is critical." How she is going to wiggle her way out of this one? "He should still be congratulated," she says, "because he already knows today that he wants to have a little more."

Rosenberg laughs. He isn't the only one to be relieved.

A Shared Desire To Be Different

She always wanted to be different, to swim against the tide, and in that respect she resembles her youngest brother, Olivier Lallouette. He has invited us to his house in Amsterdam, which has a magnificent view of the Herengracht canal. Speaking about his sister, he says: "I was always surprised that she chose such misogynistic environments."

Lallouette is an opera singer, a baritone. He met his wife, also an opera singer, when they were both performing in "La Calisto." She played Calisto and he was Jupiter, who transforms himself into the Goddess Diana to win Calisto's love. He thinks it's wonderfully ironic: "My wife fell in love with me when I was a woman."

He resembles his sister, with his tall stature, gray hair and striking profile. He is the brother Lagarde was also the closest to. They share the desire to be different.

He was 10 when he decided he wanted to be a singer. He listened to Brahms, the Romantic composers, Bach, Vivaldi and Beethoven, while his eldest brother was listening to Genesis and Santana, which was definitely cooler but Olivier felt was awful. He began learning Chinese because it was extremely unusual in the 1970s.

"My sister would have wished, with all of her heart, that I had been a girl," he says. There was a sense of competition between her and Luc, the eldest brother.

It was different with Olivier. She could be herself with him. She was constantly trying to feed him pureed food, even though he was too old for it. "She played dolls with me," says Lallouette. "I was her doll."

Their mother's life, says Lallouette, had always driven his sister to be different: the tall, elegant woman who never realized her full potential, who was at odds with her weight, who tried one diet after the next, who lost weight and then gained it back again, who was a teacher but always wanted to be more than that, and who, after the early death of their father, who had suffered from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, was left alone with four children.

Her father was her role model. "Christine was undoubtedly closer to him," says her brother in Amsterdam. He was a man of many talents who worked as a university professor and enjoyed a high social status in the northwestern French city of Le Havre. He was active in a political club called Citoyens 60 and was vice-president of the local cultural center. He organized evening salons with politicians and intellectuals, where people smoked a lot and Christine earned money for the first time, so that she could buy clothes for her Barbie dolls. She served food and poured wine, cleared the table and washed dishes. She was already wearing nice outfits at the time.

She also inherited her love of faraway places from her father. He had been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and was fascinated by the America of the 1960s, of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the student riots. He showed her photos of his trips and brought her rocks from the places he had visited. She still remembers the fascination his trips had for her, and how the entire family stood at the dock in Le Havre to watch him board the ship to America, and how they stood there again when he returned. She wanted to follow in his footsteps, and in 1973, a year after he had died, she went to the United States as an exchange student.

Lagarde's Life Partner

She has arrived in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, the last stop on her Africa trip. Lagarde has had an incredibly boring day. She gave a speech to cabinet ministers of countries in the Maghreb region, and after that she sat on her chair, listening to the other speakers, and drew pictures, first of circles that kept getting bigger and bigger, then a bouquet and, finally, rings and jewelry that she liked. Now she is giving a press conference, sitting on a stage at the conference center, framed by two bodyguards.

Her life partner Giocanti mingles with the journalists. He accompanied his wife everywhere in Africa, to the countless round-table meetings and state banquets, and he sat next to her on the plane. They met while studying law in Paris, but they were only friends at the time. Both were married to other partners first. Lagarde was even married twice, and she has two grown sons from her first marriage.

'We're Not Terrorists'

Giocanti, who now runs a real estate company in Marseilles, ran into her at an economic conference in Marseilles six years ago, and they have been a couple ever since. They see each other once a month.

"I don't know if you saw this," says Giocanti, "but why do we need bodyguards? We're not terrorists."

He feels somehow insulted by the overt presence of the security personnel, and when he feels insulted he says so. He has no qualms when it comes to that.

Giocanti is everything that Lagarde isn't: emotional, volatile, blustering, a large man who says what he thinks, and who doesn't care about nuance, once he gets going. He is likeable but a little rough around the edges. When the French magazine Gala once asked him about his role in Lagarde's life, he surprised the interviewer by joking that he was her "plaisir intérieur brute," a play on words loosely translating to "gross domestic pleasure."

On the next day, the last in their joint Africa trip, Lagarde is sitting in the back seat of an SUV as they travel through Mauritania's desert landscape. She has just completed a day trip to a fishing village, an eight-hour round-trip drive. After the many meetings, it almost felt like a brief vacation. Giocanti took pictures of flamingos, rolled down a sand dune like a child and tugged at her sleeve to show her the shell necklaces in the gift shop at the fishing village.

On the way to the village, she shared the vehicle with Giocanti, the driver and a bodyguard. But now, on the return trip, he has to switch to a different vehicle, because a conversation about the trip had been scheduled and it would have been too crowded with more than four people in the SUV.

Lagarde watches him walk away, looking for another vehicle. She says: "Oh, he's upset. I can tell."

'You're a Woman'

Now she talks about the trip, her job and her life among men. She talks about the beginning of her career as a young lawyer, when she felt that as a woman, she didn't have the same opportunities as men did. "It's always annoyed me that they said to me, in my first job interview in France: You can have the job, but you won't become a partner. You're a woman."

She was determined to do it anyway. There are also advantages to being a woman. "As a woman, I have to be true to myself and not pretend that I am a man and should behave like a man," she says in the SUV in Mauritania. "Being a woman is neither a handicap nor something to hide." The fact that she is the mother of two sons may have helped her, because it taught her that men can sometimes be like little boys.

Giocanti, in his SUV, is passing hers on the right. He is pointing his camera at her, pretending to be a paparazzo. He motions to her that the time is up for her interview, and that it's his turn again to travel with her.

Lagarde says: "He's probably made up his mind that he's going to go sideways. Not untypical of him, I would say."

Her bodyguard interjects: "I'm glad he isn't driving."

"What? He's driving???"

"I said I'm glad he isn't driving."

"Oh. Yeah. So am I."