IMF chief Christine Lagarde goes on trial in France on Monday over a huge state payout to a flamboyant tycoon when she was finance minister in a case that risks tarnishing her stellar career. Lagarde denies the charges of negligence, arguing she was acting “in the state’s interest” in making the payment to Bernard Tapie, the former owner of sportswear giant Adidas and Olympique Marseille football club. If found guilty, Lagarde may receive a one-year prison sentence and a 15,000 euro ($15,900) fine. Whatever the outcome, the case risks damaging the image of 60-year-old Lagarde, a former corporate lawyer who progressed through the finance ministry to her current role as one of the world’s most powerful women.
The case also threatens the credibility of the International Monetary Fund, whose last three managing directors have faced trial. Lagarde, who was named to a second term in February this year, has received the full backing of the IMF over the case. She will be tried by the Court of Justice of the Republic, a tribunal that hears cases against ministers accused of wrongdoing in the discharge of their duties. The accusations stem from Lagarde’s handling of a dispute with Tapie, a former government minister who claimed a state bank defrauded him in its sale of Adidas.
Tapie owned the firm from 1990 to 1993 but lost control of it after he went bankrupt. He also owned Marseille when they won the 1993 European Cup, the forerunner of the Champions League, but they were later embroiled in a match-fixing scandal. On becoming FM in 2007 under the newly elected president Nicolas Sarkozy, Lagarde ordered that Tapie’s long-running battle with the state be resolved by arbitration. The decision was hugely costly, with Tapie initially walking away with a staggering 404 million euros ($427 million) in compensation in 2008. After a lengthy court battle, he has since been ordered to repay the money.