Christine Lagarde: Trailblazing woman at the IMF

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde (AFP Photo/PAUL J. RICHARDS) (AFP/File)

Paris (AFP) - Christine Lagarde is a high-flying former lawyer who rose to become the first woman to lead the International Monetary Fund but who may find her stellar career blemished by a conviction for negligence.

The silver-haired Lagarde, 60, is credited with steering the Washington-based IMF through turbulent economic waters since taking over in 2011.

She started a second five-year term as the organisation's managing director in February and has won plaudits for her handling of the Greek financial crisis.

But her conviction in Paris Monday for failing to challenge a 404-million-euro ($422 million) award to flamboyant French businessman Bernard Tapie in 2008 over the sale of sportswear brand Adidas is a setback.

However, in what might prove crucial for Lagarde's IMF future, the court ruled she will not be fined or face a jail sentence.

Her woes strike at the core of another of her tasks: restoring morale at the institution after both of her predecessors suffered legal problems.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former French finance minister like Lagarde, resigned in disgrace in 2011 after being accused of attempted rape in a New York hotel.

Rodrigo Rato, a Spanish former banker who ran the Fund from 2004-2007, is on trial for embezzlement in his native Spain.

Before the trial, Lagarde, usually impeccably dressed in luxury French brands, dismissed the prosecution over the case of Tapie as "political". The court that tried her is staffed by judges and parliamentarians and hears the cases of former or serving French ministers.

The case is a stain on an otherwise stellar international career in business, government and finance that has seen her break through barriers as a woman.

She was the first female chairman of a major global law firm -- the US-based Baker and McKenzie -- and was France's first woman economy minister when named by then president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007.

The divorced mother of two sons, who is in a relationship with entrepreneur Xavier Giocanti, took over the reins of the IMF in 2011, overseeing the giant organisation which lends money to stricken countries and monitors the international financial system.

- Stamina -

Economist Desmond Lachman, a former IMF official, recalls that "there are many instances of Ms. Lagarde's courageous truth-telling" -- often as the only women in the room.

This once included scolding her successor as French finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, who fell asleep during one of many crisis meetings on her watch at the IMF.

The stamina of the former synchronised swimmer, who represented France as a schoolgirl, is legendary and she says she gave up drinking alcohol 15 years ago to improve her performance.

When not attending international summits, negotiating bailout programmes for bankrupt countries or crunching data at the IMF headquarters, she likes to relax on a farm she owns in northern France.

Born to middle-class teacher parents, she went to school in the northern port city of Le Havre before going on to study at universities in France and the US.

During her time at the IMF, Lagarde has worked to increase the influence of emerging countries, particularly China, and has taken part in bailout talks for Greece and Ukraine.

She is a staunch defender of the international trade system and has spoken out about the dangers of rising nationalism and a "populist backlash" around the world.

She said in September that globalisation "has to benefit all, not a few", but argued that the fruits of a connected world were severely undersold by politicians.