Page last updated at 17:07 GMT, Thursday, 17 July 2008 18:07 UK

Synchronising French politics and work

By Alka Marwaha
BBC World Service

President Nicolas Sarkozy and Minister Christine Lagarde
President Sarkozy and Christine Lagarde want change in France

She has reached the top in American business, French politics and synchronised swimming.

Christine Lagarde is France's first female minister for finance and has tasked herself with reforming how the French work.

Catapulted into the world of politics by a random phone call, she moved from the US to France almost overnight.

"I got a call on Wednesday morning at 0500, whilst I was negotiating a merger between our New York office and the office of another firm," she told BBC World Service's programme The Interview.

At the time, she was chair of an international law firm and was well aware of how the French were perceived globally.

"When I was chairman of Baker and McKenzie, I was often confronted about the French reputation.

"It was always fascinating for me to see how much of a gap there was between perception and the reality of what happens at home.

"It's because of that perception that is conveyed by French people abroad that I decided in 2005 to join the government and to give up beautiful America, where I had a tremendously enjoyable, productive and well-compensated life," she said.

Cross cultures

France is a country that is synonymous with great food, wine and culture.

However, when it comes to work, the French are sometimes thought to be lazy.

"That's where there is a gap," said Christine Lagarde.

"I think it was very much conveyed by this silly law on 35 hours, which actually built that reputation of French people not wanting to work.

When I was chairman of Baker and McKenzie, I was often confronted about the French reputation
Christine Lagarde
"Anybody who has invested in France, they all come up with the same conclusion that the French are damn good workers," she added.

"Decades ago, French people valued work very highly, then I think the 35 hours actually was a complete sea-change in the attitude towards work and then suddenly work was undervalued and looked upon with a bit of contempt."

"This is changing and this has changed massively since President [Nicolas] Sarkozy was elected," she said.

Coming to America

Having worked as a top lawyer in the US, she thinks there is a lot to learn from how Americans do things.

"What I value highly about this country and its people, is their appetite for life and positive attitude to just about anything.

"Finding solutions and being professional about what they do and not having a multiple hidden agenda," she added.

I think the 35 hours actually was a complete sea-change in the attitude towards work
Christine Lagarde
Having worked across the world, she wants to change how people view the French.

"My hope is that I can bring a little bit of that external vision that I have about my country," she said.

France and the US have had a somewhat troubled relationship in the past, but Christine Lagarde does not seem to think this is a bad thing.

"Maybe because these two countries have an aspiration to being universal and setting values for the rest of humanity.

"I don't think at the moment there is anti-Americanism in France, quite the contrary really, there is a lot of pro-American feeling in many respects."

However, she did add that this sentiment did not extend to the current US administration.

Sarkozy's reforms

Having been in power for just over a year, President Sarkozy promised some quite sweeping reforms to tackle a slowing economy and high unemployment.

"It was always rumoured that the French economy was plagued with strikes, this is no longer the case," said Ms Lagarde.

"I know the President has been criticised for saying that you don't even know if there are strikes in France anymore.

"The country is no longer in complete chaos, as it used to be a few years ago," she added.

Christine Lagarde and the BBC's Owen Bennett-Jones
Christine Lagarde was interviewed by the BBC's Owen Bennett-Jones
"Work has been completely rehabilitated and the 35 hours is being circumvented in such a way that people are going to be able to organise flexibility in the workplace by agreement between employees and employers."

As the world faces a credit crunch, Ms Lagarde does not necessarily deem this as a bad thing.

"All our economies are facing tough times but I think it acts as a catalyst to reform.

"Unemployment has been going down steadily in France month after month," she added.

President Sarkozy has been accused of protecting the interests of French farmers and, more recently, of steel workers.

"This allegation that he is a protectionist is a funny gap between reality and perception, but France is the third or fourth country to receive foreign direct investment after the US, China and the UK.

"About 40% of market capitalisation of our top 40 companies is actually held by foreign investors and one out of every seven employees in France is employed by a foreign company.

"This shows that France is very much open for business.

"What matters at the end of the day is his vision for the country," she said.

Future France

Politicians and business people are often perceived quite differently from each other by the public. So how do these quite distinct worlds collide in the case of Ms Lagarde?

"If they stick to the old way of doing politics, there won't be credibility.

My hope is that I can bring a little bit of that external vision that I have about my country
Christine Lagarde
Having been the fodder for a few French headlines, she knows that being a politician is not easy.

"You learn a lot more from your mistakes than you do from your success.

"I want to be able to participate in this process of changing my country into becoming a better competitor in the world economy.

"We are really bringing a breath of fresh air and freedom that has never been in the French economy in decades," she added.

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