* Emerging giants denounce European lock on top IMF job
* Lagarde has EU backing; U.S., China said to favour
* Lagarde promises humility, seeks to build consensus
(Adds Lagarde quotes)
By Jean-Baptiste Vey and Lesley Wroughton
PARIS/WASHINGTON, May 25 (Reuters) - France's Christine
Lagarde has entered the race to head the IMF despite anger in
big emerging economies over Europe's "obsolete" lock on the job.
France's finance minister announced her candidacy on
Wednesday, the eve of a G8 summit, after securing the unanimous
backing of the 27-nation European Union and, diplomats said,
support from the United States and China.
"It is an immense challenge which I approach with humility
and in the hope of achieving the broadest possible consensus,"
Lagarde told a Paris news conference.
The 55-year-old former corporate lawyer, who speaks fluent
English, has won plaudits for her deft chairing of the G20
finance ministers and communications skills.
But unlike Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who resigned last week
after being charged with attempted rape, she is not an economist
and may struggle to match his thought leadership over the
management of the world economy.
Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa criticized EU
officials in a joint statement for suggesting the next
International Monetary Fund head should be a European, a
convention that dates back to the founding of the global lender
at the end of the Second World War.
However, the countries known as the BRICs failed to unite
behind a common alternative candidate, leaving the way clear for
Lagarde unless she slips on a pending French legal case.
Diplomats said the complaint was mostly aimed at securing a
commitment from developed countries that nationality will no
longer be a covert criterion for selecting future IMF chiefs.
In a nod to the emerging nations' concerns, Lagarde said she
would work for "greater representativity and greater
flexibility" at the IMF if elected.
In the first joint statement issued by their directors at
the Fund, the BRICs said the choice of who heads the IMF should
be based on competence, not nationality. They called for
"abandoning the obsolete unwritten convention that requires that
the head of the IMF be necessarily from Europe."
Lagarde said she was running as a candidate to serve all IMF
members, not just Europe, although she noted her experience and
good relations with European officials would be an advantage in
steering the IMF's role in the bloc's debt crisis.
"Being European shouldn't be a plus, but it shouldn't be a
minus either," Lagarde said.
Hours before the statement was issued in Washington,
France's government said China would back Lagarde. The Chinese
Foreign Ministry declined comment.
Some emerging market government officials say privately that
although they are fed up with advanced economies controlling the
selection process, they are not in a position to put forward a
challenger who could stand up to Lagarde.
Mexico has nominated its central bank chief for the job and
he said some countries had welcomed his decision to run. South
Africa and Kazakhstan may put forward their own candidates.
Under a long-standing agreement between the United States
and Europe, the top job at the IMF goes to a European while an
American leads its sister organisation, the World Bank. The
United States also fills the number two position at the IMF.
European diplomats said Washington had asked the French
government about the legal case hanging over Lagarde, in which
she faces accusations of abusing her authority.
The Court of Justice of the Republic, a special court
created to try ministers for alleged offences committed while in
office, is examining the procedure followed in awarding the 285
million euro settlement to Bernard Tapie, a convicted
ex-minister who backed Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign.
French officials have told other governments privately the
case will not be a show-stopper, the diplomats said.
Lagarde said her conscience was clear.
"I have every confidence in this procedure because my
conscience is perfectly clear," she said. "I acted in the
interest of the state and in respect of the law."
U.S. BACKS EUROPEAN
The EU and the United States, which sources in Washington
have said will back a European, have enough joint voting power
to decide who leads the IMF.
Securing support from some emerging economies would defuse a
potentially bitter row over the decision though.
In April 2009, the Group of 20 leading nations endorsed "an
open, transparent and merit-based selection process" for heads
of the global institutions.
France, which presides over the G20 this year, has made an
effort to work with Beijing on key issues for developing nations
like global monetary reform and commodity market speculation.
Last week, the head of China's central bank, Zhou Xiaochuan,
said the IMF's leadership should reflect the growing stature of
emerging economies. But he stopped short of saying its new boss
should be from an emerging economy.
Wu Qing, a researcher with the Development Research Centre
government think tank in Beijing, said it was plausible that
China would support Lagarde as there weren't many qualified
candidates from China or Asia in general.
The IMF's board will draw up a shortlist of three candidates
and has a June 30 deadline for picking a successor.
(Additional reporting by Julien Toyer in Paris, Jiang Yan in
Beijing, Leigh Jones and Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing
by Emily Kaiser and Paul Taylor)
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