- Associated Press - Thursday, May 19, 2011

BRUSSELS (AP) — Europe’s top officials closed ranks Thursday to demand that the International Monetary Fund’s next leader be one of their own, someone with enough technical expertise and political savvy to handle the Continent’s relentless debt crisis.

Frenchman Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who has been praised widely for his leadership of the IMF and its involvement in solving Europe’s woes, resigned Wednesday to devote “all his energy” to fighting sexual assault charges in New York.

The move heated up simmering debate over his successor, with Europe aggressively staking its traditional claim to the post even as fast-growing nations such as China and Brazil say it’s time to break that monopoly and seek an IMF chief from a developing nation. The Washington-based IMF is empowered to direct billions of dollars to stabilize the global economy.

Hours after Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s resignation, everyone from the European Commission to the German chancellor to the French finance minister — herself a potential candidate — said the replacement should come from Europe. Not because of any tradition, they insisted, but because intimate knowledge of Europe’s debt crisis should be a critical element of any candidate’s portfolio.

“From a European point of view, it is essential that the appointment will be merit-based, where competence and economic and political experience play the key role,” said Olli Rehn, European commissioner for monetary and cconomic affairs. “And in this current juncture it is a merit if the person has quite solid knowledge of the European economy and decision-making.”

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde in recent days has been touted in many European capitals as a good choice. A sharp, articulate negotiator, she has a strong international reputation and impeccable English after living in the United States for many years.

“I am convinced that she is a good candidate. I made a few trips with her to Asia. I was able to verify her popularity among ministers of large emerging countries,” French Transport Minister Thierry Mariani told France-Info radio Thursday.

Despite Ms. Lagarde’s popularity, Mr. Mariani was the first member of the French government to speak about her publicly.

That’s partly because she is a member of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party, and if Mr. Sarkozy openly pushes for her candidacy, that could fuel the widespread belief in France that the accusations against Mr. Strauss-Kahn were part of a conspiracy to knock him off what appeared to be his march toward the French presidency.

Ms. Lagarde herself mentioned no names but said she, too, supported a European for the job.

“I’m a true European, and I’m convinced that Europe is the way to go, as far as we are concerned,” she told reporters on a visit to a French supermarket. “I am a convinced European, and I think that for such a candidacy, the Europeans must be united.”

In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed for a quick decision on a successor to Mr. Strauss-Kahn and underlined her hopes for another European.

“It is of great significance, of course, that we find a quick solution,” she said Thursday, without naming specific candidates.

The IMF’s executive board released a letter from Mr. Strauss-Kahn on Wednesday in which he denied the allegations against him but said he felt he must resign to protect his family and the IMF.

Mr. Strauss-Kahn is facing a bail hearing Thursday in New York that could have spelled the end of his leadership of the IMF anyway. He faces charges of assaulting a maid in a New York hotel room and has been jailed in New York since Monday.

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