News that Cecilia Sarkozy is divorcing her husband, President Nicolas Sarkozy, is all over the U.S. press. We know now that the breakup was civilized, that Cecilia once modeled for French fashion house Schiaparelli, that the 49-year-old likes the idea of relocating to New York so she can jog in Central Park.
But there is another woman in the Sarkozy constellation who matters more than Cecilia. She is Christine Lagarde, the 51-year- old finance minister.
Lagarde, a lawyer who was the first woman to lead the big U.S. law firm Baker & McKenzie, spoke this week at the Council on Foreign Relations, where I work.
Her host, buyout firm magnate Henry Kravis, spent much of the hour leaning forward in his seat, and so did the other guests, male and female. For all the finance ministers of France who have sashayed up and down the East Side over the decades, Lagarde is the one most likely to seduce investors away from the U.S. and to France.
The finance minister’s power doesn’t derive from her fashionable haircut or her generally pro-business slant, which has earned her the nickname “the American.’’ General Motors Corp. is also American, and no longer has much in the way of allure. And, of course, Cabinet members of preceding French governments also declared themselves pro-business. Jacques Chirac himself rattled on about building “national champions’’ of French industry that might confront what he called American hegemony.
Lagarde’s charm is that she focuses on the smaller challenges, the micro issues of enterprise. She addresses those specific aspects of nations’ relative competitiveness that executives themselves talk about in the first-class lounge — at least when they aren’t checking for updates on Cecilia.