Angela Merkel Backs a European for the IMF Job. But Which European Can She Have in Mind?

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This morning Angela Merkel made clear that she wishes to see a European replace Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the helm of the IMF. “It is of course of great importance that we find a quick solution,” she added.

The German Chancellor carefully avoided any hints as to which of the various Europeans mooted for the IMF candidacy might receive her backing. But despite the rumored ambitions of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, another European is emerging as the frontrunner—Christine Lagarde. The only black mark against France’s first female finance minister is this: she is French, as is Strauss-Kahn. If the job is filled on the principle of what Brits call “Buggin’s turn,” that is, not on merit but position in the queue, then a French candidate is ruled out.

But if skill and popularity are taken into account, Lagarde looks to be in a strong position. And a quick glance back at the last few years of TIME’s annual listing of the world’s most influential people, the TIME 100, reinforces this view. Here’s an encomium to Lagarde from 2009—authored by U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. In 2010 she was profiled for the TIME 100 by Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. Lagarde, wrote Schwab, has all the qualities of “genuine leadership.”

This year it was Lagarde’s turn to praise a TIME 100 honoree, for “extraordinary talents,” “a spirit of compromise,” “natural reticence” and “a desire for openness.” The honoree? Chancellor Merkel.

As my colleague Leo Cendrowicz reported, Merkel’s favorite for the IMF is said to be a fellow German, Axel Weber. He was tipped to head the European Central Bank until he pulled out of the running in February and resigned from Germany’s Bundesbank citing “personal reasons.” Another German name cropping up is that of Peer Steinbrück, German Finance Minister during Merkel’s grand coalition with the opposition Social Democrats.

The idea of a national champion in an international institution always has its charms, but so too does the prospect of a steady pair of hands in a role of such importance for the world economy—especially after the Strauss-Kahn imbroglio. Moreover the personal chemistry between Merkel and Lagarde is palpable. I first noticed their rapport in 2009 as the G-20 convened in London at the height of the global banking crisis. During a joint Franco-German press conference on the eve of the summit, Merkel appeared visibly wearied by the theatrics of her co-host, President Nicolas Sarkozy. As he postured and talked—and talked—Merkel grimaced. Lagarde caught the expression and shook her head, and the two women exchanged wry smiles. The fleeting moment revealed an instinct the women share; and one that could make the prospect of Lagarde at the IMF palatable to Merkel: the instinct to get on with the job, with the minimum of grandstanding.