Christine Lagarde grew up surrounded by teachers. Her father was an English teacher and her mother was a teacher of Latin and Ancient Greek. She believes this education inspired her to pursue education throughout her life, leading her to her current position as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. Christine Lagarde sat down with Ryan Tubridy this morning to discuss her family, career and how Ireland dealt with the recent economic crisis from her point of view.
Ms Lagarde told Ryan that her educator parents made academia feel normal.
“They brought to me a universe where literature, music, theatre, poetry were part of our day-to-day life. They brought to me the sense that we were surrounded by the world out there which mattered.“
Christine’s father was interested in politics. Every lunch would start with them listening to the news on the radio. Her father much preferred radio news to television, she says, as he thought the television was home to “propaganda” and general lower standards. Her father was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease when Christine was 12 and passed away when she was 16.
“He could not write as easily as he used to. Gradually, his speaking ability was impaired. Eventually, he couldn’t speak at all… His brain power was totally unaffected. It was a very sad situation, a very sad evolution.“
When asked by Ryan if she thought this experience changed her, Ms Lagarde told him that she believes it made her a stronger person.
“What doesn’t destroy you makes you stronger and I think that, as a result of that, I sort developed a sense of independence and maturity that I would not have developed had he been unaffected, fine and thriving as we all hoped he would.”
Her parents remain an important part of her life to this day, Christine says.
“You’re the product of your childhood. So, you do think about both your parents and you want to make them proud. Even if they’re gone.”
Left in charge of a single-parent household, Christine’s mother was a huge influence on her outlook and attitude towards life.
“She had to suddenly care for a family of four children and you know, she must have had difficult times. But she never showed those moments to us.”
Her mother was her school teacher when she was 12. She was a “very, very demanding teacher”, Christine remembers.
“Didn’t like Latin very much in those days... Although she was demanding, I was very proud of her.
As a teenager, Christine pursued an interest in swimming, specifically synchronised swimming. She trained to such a high level that she represented France at the European Championships (synchronised swimming was not yet an Olympic sport). As for if she still uses any of the skills she learned during this time, there’s one or two that come in useful.
“Hold your breath. Grit your teeth. And smile.”
As a woman in such a high position of power, Ms Lagarde has encountered her fair share of sexism in the workplace. She remembers being told she wouldn’t progress in the law because she was a woman during an interview for a firm.
“I thought, you know, ‘Sod you, you don’t deserve me. I’m going and I’m not staying with you. And I’m not going to work in an environment where I’m only contributing to your bottom line and you have no prospect for me because I’m a woman‘. So, I just packed up my things and I left.“
Where did this sense of assurance and confidence come from? It all comes back to her “role model” mother and the education she was given.
“She was determined and I think I must have learned that from her.”
She recalls being called into a meeting with the principal of her son’s school, who suggested that her son was performing poorly because she is a working mother. She moved her son to a different school. Ryan commented that there is “no messing” with her.
“Not on that front, no.”
Ryan asked why she thought it has taken the world so long to catch up with gender equality, a subject Ms Lagarde is passionate about.
“Education is at the heart of emancipation. And for a long period of time, girls were a lot less educated than boys. And I think that still today, it is a very strong project that we should focus on, that we should encourage, that we should help with. Make sure that the girls are as educated as the boys.”
She praised the G7 resolution that, worldwide, girls should receive at least 12 years of education.
“It’s a question of political courage and not being afraid of the other half of humanity… I think it will take time but we should not give up and we should push for that.”
When Ireland was in the depths of the financial crisis, Ms Lagarde was one of the people at the other end of the phone to then Minister for Finance, the late Brian Lenihan. She described Lenihan as “very congenial, very friendly” and a good French speaker. While their meetings were normally quite convivial, during the crash she could sense the atmosphere too.
“On that particular day, there was a sense of absolute panic and having exhausted all the options and having looked at all the alternatives and simply saying, you know, I’m at the end of my list of choices. I’ve totally explored all the tools in my toolbox and I have no option but to guarantee the deposits.”
Ms Lagarde recalled that time, looking back on it today.
“All of us were in unknown territories at the time. It was just unbelievable…There was just too much going on, too much urgency, too much of a sense of you know, ‘Will it work?’, ‘Is that the right thing to do?’, ‘Are we not taking a massive risk?’…it was a very confusing time.”
Ryan asked about the future and if Ms Lagarde sees herself staying in public service.
“I don’t think that I will go back to the corporate world. I don’t think that I will be driven by greed, accumulation of money. And I think that my life will look like a combination of continuing to serve public interests at the IMF or elsewhere and have a little bit more time for my grand-children and my rose garden and my jams and jellies in the summer.”
How about the French presidency?
“I have zero ambition in that regard. No, thank you.”
Listen back to the full interview on The Ryan Tubridy Show here.
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