Christine Lagarde, the French minister of finance and the first woman to fill the role for a G8 country, looks as if she has never encountered failure – yet was once told she could not have the job she coveted.
"I was at Baker & McKenzie," she says of the American international law firm she joined in 1981, "I was 30 years old and I wanted to be a partner. I was taken aside by a superior, a woman I respected, and told, quite frankly, that I was too young."
Lagarde was devastated. "But I learned a lesson. And that woman, in many ways was my mentor." Lagarde believes failure is a chance to rebuild oneself. She eventually became a partner, later the firm's the first female chairman. Forbes magazine has called her one of the 30 most powerful women in the world.
Two years ago, she caused controversy in the French senate by announcing: "It's time to roll up our shirt sleeves and get to work." After that, she was nicknamed l'Americaine, although she remains one of the most popular ministers in President Nicolas Sarkozy's government.
Although some thought Lagarde would be moved to the foreign ministry in last October's cabinet reshuffle, she has kept her job after guiding theeuro through a difficult time and standing up to belligerent strikers. Her experience is thought to be vital during a time of global economic difficulty. We meet as the euro plummets, Ireland hovers near disaster, and Spain, Portugal and Italy are all in trouble. She has just come from a council of ministers where she helped negotiate a relief package for Ireland; last summer she was in charge of bailing out Greece.
"We have a determination to support [the euro]," she says, "and countries such as Italy and Greece are like family." We meet in her office, the grand former home of the French finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, near the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. Her desk is enormous, but papers are stacked neatly: everything is in order, like the perfectly groomed Lagarde herself.
Like Margaret Thatcher, she does not need a lot of sleep, and as a former synchronised swimmer on the French national team, she believes that success partially comes from being physically fit. She was born in Paris, the daughter of academic parents. Lagarde's mother taught Latin, Greek and French, and was an early role model: she became a widow at 40 then had to fend for herself and her children. At 17, following her father's death, Lagarde went to America for a year on an exchange and perfected her English. But she failed to get into ENA, the elite grand ecole that trains ministers and civil servants. "I probably would not have become a minister if I had not failed," she says. After law school in Paris, she worked in France before returning to the US to work for Baker & McKenzie in Chicago.
"People are becoming more and more adventurous, entrepreneurial here," she says of France. Sixty per cent of the people who registered for a government scheme Lagarde helped set up to encourage businesses were women. Why is that? "Women are willing to get on with projects," she says.
Yet work does not seem to be a key focus in France: the long lunches; the nine-week holidays; the uproar when retirement was set at 62 rather than 60. Are the French lazier than Anglo-Saxons, as it is often perceived?
"OK, the work ethic is different in France than in Anglo-Saxon countries," she says. "It's not the only purpose of life, it's a landscape. You have to earn a living, so you work." After America, she was noticed by Dominique de Villepin and given the role of minister of trade in Jacques Chirac's government. "It was a learning curve," she notes, going from law to politics. "But not that much different – it's about influence. I had to influence 600 partners at Baker & McKenzie." The political world is just as much of a "boy's world" as a big US law firm, she says, but "we'll get there". I am the first female minister of finance in the G8 . . . but I hope I am not the last!"
Divorced (but living with a partner), she is the mother of two children, aged 22 and 24, neither of whom are headed for a political career. When they were small, she says, the juggling of an alpha career and children was a struggle. "The balancing act is very hard. I had to accept that I could not be successful at everything. You draw up priorities, and you accept a lot of guilt." She is thoughtful. "It's part of growing up – as a woman, a spouse, a mother." She remembers an upsetting incident when a headmistress chastised her for working too much. "You can not let guilt engineer your life," she adds.
"But you know, in my career, the best support in the end was my kids. When I was about to become chairman of Baker & McKenzie, and I knew the amount of work it would involve, the younger one took me aside and said: 'Mum, do it. You started it, you have to finish it.'"
In France, she points out, the system is well set up for working women – the country has one of the highest birth rates after Ireland, and one of the highest percentages of women in work – helped by every neighbourhood having a state-supported creche or nursery, the schools being free and children starting nursery at three. She says she has been well-supported. Yet France ranks 46th in the World Economic Forum's 2010 gender equality report, trailing the US, most of Europe, but also Kazakhstan and Jamaica, and has the highest rate of women taking antidepressants. The latter is often blamed on the fact that perfection is important: you will never see a working French woman looking ungroomed. At the same time, French women earn 26% less than men but spend twice as much time on domestic tasks. "There is a lot of pressure on women here," she admits, but points out her ethical code, "being physically fit – select a sport and continue it – and try to get love, support and encouragement in what you do."
Lagarde has a full day ahead of her, a full week, a full year. France is taking over the presidency of the G20 group of leading countries formed in the aftermath of the financial crisis to reform the international monetary system, and when asked what her biggest challenge is, she's quick to reply: "The G-20." As I leave, she rolls up her elegant shirt sleeves and goes back to her huge desk to work.