- 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.

The maid, a 32-year-old immigrant from the West African nation of Guinea, told police the 62-year-old Mr. Strauss-Kahn came out of the bathroom naked, chased her down, forced her to perform oral sex on him and tried to remove her underwear before she broke free and fled.

The IMF’s statement said that the process of choosing a new leader would begin but that, in the meantime, John Lipsky would remain its acting managing director.

Europeans have led the IMF since its inception after World War II. Americans have occupied both the No. 2 position at the IMF and the top post at its sister institution, the World Bank. The World Bank funds projects in developing countries.

Developing nations see Europe’s stranglehold on the position as increasingly out of touch with the world economy. China’s is now the world’s second-largest economy. India’s and Brazil’s have cracked the top 10. Many emerging economies have become forces of financial stability, while rich countries have become weighed down by debt.

“We must establish meritocracy so that the person leading the IMF is selected for their merits and not for being European,” Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega said Wednesday. “You can have a competent European … but you can have a representative from an emerging nation who is competent as well.”

China suggested it was time to shake things up at the IMF, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu saying the leadership “should be based on fairness, transparency and merit.”

The United States has a major say in determining who will head the fund, in part because it holds the largest number of votes. The prevailing view among analysts and former Treasury officials appears to be that Washington would back a strong European candidate who could be approved in a smooth process.

Other potential European candidates include Germany’s former central bank chief, Axel Weber; the head of Europe’s bailout fund, Klaus Regling; and Peer Steinbrueck, a former German finance minister.

Candidates from elsewhere include Turkey’s former finance minister, Kemal Dervis; Singapore’s finance chief, Tharman Shanmugaratnam; and Indian economist Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

Bradley Klapper reported from Washington. Geir Moulson in Berlin, Raf Casert in Brussels, and Angela Charlton and Nicolas Garriga in Paris also contributed to this report.

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