I find myself impressed with the obvious talents of Christine Lagarde, the current French Finance Minister and lead candidate for Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s replacement at the IMF (just endorsed by the G8 today ). I am admittedly drawn to the idea of appointing the first women to ever head the Fund, a testosterone-driven organization if there ever was one. Yet the fawning news coverage of the stylish Lagarde (see Maureen Dowd’s op-ed in the New York Times today) also leaves me with a sinking feeling. The crisis at the helm of the Fund should present an opportunity for change, permitting for the first time in the institution’s history a serious consideration of non-Western candidates for Managing Director. And while ultimately merit should take precedent over nationality, the appointment of a non-Western Managing Director would give a serious boost to the external legitimacy of the Fund and could even be the spark to incite much-needed change in its hierarchical, orthodox culture.

Yet that opportunity seems to be passing by. Over the last week, we have seen most of the viable candidates from the developing world drop out of the race. In turn, we have been deluged with arguments in favor of keeping with tradition, replacing DSK with another European (French again, no less). Worse may be the reason proffered for this – the idea that we need a European at the helm of the Fund at a moment when the institution’s main business happens to be the resolution of Europe’s cascading debt crises. Yet, as my friend and colleague Jacquie Best persuasively argued in this May 28 op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen :

“This argument would be more persuasive if the Europeans hadn’t said precisely the opposite in the past: They had no compunction in taking the helm of the IMF when it was Asia, Latin America or Africa in the grip of economic or financial crisis. In those cases, the fact that the IMF managing director was not from an affected region was seen as irrelevant.”

I find it nearly as shocking that much of the media coverage of Lagarde seems to justify this choice by arguing that Lagarde really isn’t as French as we might think. In fact, she spent nearly two decades living and working in the US. In France, Lagarde is disparagingly referred to as “l’Americaine”, fluent in English and boldly dismissive of French intellectual elitism. But are Lagarde’s American attributes really supposed to make us feel better in this post-crisis era?

As a sidenote, for those concerned about DSK’s welfare : the Fund is apparently providing him with a separation payment of $250,000. This should cover about five months rent in his lavish Tribeca apartment, where he is currently under house arrest.