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Combative new IMF chief takes on new challenge

PARIS (AP) -- Christine Lagarde has traveled tirelessly to save the euro and blazed a trail for women from Chicago to Paris in halls of power long dominated by men.

The French finance minister with a broad grin and long stride now faces her toughest job yet: heading the International Monetary Fund. She takes over a post vacated by a man accused of attempting to rape a New York hotel maid just as the fund is under new pressure to stabilize the global economy.

Lagarde was named Tuesday as Europe hung on tenterhooks to see if Greece can be saved from a default that could quake markets around the world and threaten the future of the euro currency.

While she's not a trained economist, she has made her mark as the first woman finance minister of a major world economy by surrounding herself with strong advisers _ and by using her impeccable English and media savvy to get her message out.

If her past is anything to go by, the former champion swimmer will not blanch at the challenge ahead. Her roll-up-your-sleeves attitude and frank manner set her apart from the lofty figures often found in French politics and the IMF.

In announcing her candidacy last month, she said she'd bring ``all my expertise as a lawyer, a minister, a manager and a woman'' to the job.

Lagarde will be able to ``hit the ground running'' at the IMF because she's so familiar with one of the fund's biggest challenges, the European crisis, said Jan Randolph, director of sovereign risk at IHS Global Insight.

Lagarde's background is in law _ experience that may have come in handy as she negotiated the rescues of Greece, Ireland and Portugal in a series of tense, late-night meetings over the past year and a half.

However, Greece's resurgent problems this year have raised questions about the wisdom of last year's bailout _ and may cast doubt on Lagarde's crisis management strategy just as she takes over the IMF. Europe's indecisive and disjointed handling of the Greek crisis has caused the total size of the final bill for taxpayers and international lenders to balloon.

She's has faced down critics before.

In the 1980s, a law firm in Paris told Lagarde that her sex disqualified her from high office, she has said. So she turned to Chicago-based law firm Baker & McKenzie, where she went on to become the firm's first female director in 1999.

In capitalism-wary France, she champions the free market, even visiting classrooms as trade minister to teach French schoolchildren not to fear globalization.

After she became finance minister in 2007, she drew fire in parliament for saying French people need to work more and be better rewarded for hard work with lower taxes. It earned her the moniker ``the minister of the rich'' by some.

She's faced setbacks, too. She had to back down on a push to allow more stores in France to open on Sundays, and also faces potential legal troubles at home.

Questions have surfaced about her role in getting arbitration in 2008 for French businessman Bernard Tapie, who won (euro) 285 million ($449 million) as compensation for the mishandling of the sale of sportswear maker Adidas. Lagarde was finance minister at the time of the ruling.

A decision is expected July 8 on whether to open an investigation into her actions. She has said she has ``total confidence'' about the issue.

Lagarde, 55, grew up in western France, and is now divorced with two grown sons. She once told a French television program that when students staged uprisings in 1968, her father signed then-adolescent Christine up for the swim team to keep her from joining the protests.

After two decades in the United States, she returned to Paris to join French politics in 2005, giving up a $600,000 a year job to become a junior government minister. She has not initiated many major reforms herself, but has been an effective spokesperson for President Nicolas Sarkozy's financial policies.

Her charisma and sense of humor were on display in an April 2009 appearance on the satirical news show ``The Daily Show.'' She plopped a beret on her trademark silver hair and managed to charm host John Stewart during a conversation on the global financial crisis that saw her get as many or more laughs and cheers from the audience as Stewart.

Now her challenge will be to distance herself from France and her nationality and focus on the world's economic balance.

A European has headed the IMF since its inception after World War II, and some developing countries have complained that the position should go to someone from a different region for a change.

When she announced her candidacy for the IMF job, Lagarde indicated she would not focus exclusively on Europe, and said the choice shouldn't be based on a candidate's citizenship. ``No zone has been spared by the financial crisis,'' she said.