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Lagarde profile: An alternative to the conventional politician

Christine Lagarde is, after President Sarkozy, the most recognisable face of the French government outside the country.

Although a very unconventional kind of French politician, she is approaching the record for the longest-serving finance minister in the Fifth Republic (since 1958).

Before being head-hunted to join the French government in 2005, Ms Lagarde, 55, spent much of her professional career as a lawyer in the US. She was once an intern on Capitol Hill.

She is liked and admired in both Europe and the US and is popular in the developing world. She has argued, among other things, for what she calls a "teensy-tiny" tax on all financial transactions to help fund investments in the third world to combat climate change.

Ms Lagarde is fluent in English and a frequent performer on the BBC and CNN news channels.

A divorcée with two grown-up sons, she was born in Paris in 1956. Her father, a university lecturer, died when she was 17. Her mother, a teacher, was left to bring up Christine and her three younger brothers.

As a teenager, she was in the French national synchronised swimming team. She was educated in Paris and Le Havre. She trained as a lawyer and made two unsuccessful attempts to enter the élite French civil service college, the Ecole nationale d'administration (ENA).

Had she been successful, she says, it is "very unlikely" that she would have fought her way through the male-dominated world of French politics to reach her present position.

Instead, aged 25, she joined the Paris office of Baker & McKenzie, an American law firm present in 35 countries. By 1999, she was chairing the company HQ in Chicago, the first woman to hold the position.

In 2005, she was head-hunted to become trade minister in the French government. After a one-month stint as agriculture minister in May 2007, she became finance minister. Through the financial crisis of 2008 and the eurozone crises of 2010-11, she built an international reputation as a calm but tough negotiator.

In an interview with The Independent in February, she made the case for more women to be promoted to the highest levels of world politics and finance. In the context of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, her words may now sound prophetic.

"Gender-dominated environments are not good... particularly in the financial sector where there are too few women," she said. "Men have a tendency to... show how hairy-chested they are, compared with the man who's sitting next to them. I honestly think that there should never be too much testosterone in one room."