I like how the lead story on the front page of today’s New York Times seemed to be about the financial crisis in Europe, but was really about friendship.

Christine Lagarde from France, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, and Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, have a BFF relationship. They text each other often and exchange gifts. They became friends because they often found they were the only two women in rooms full of powerful men.

Currently they are at odds over the role Germany should play in bailing out its neighbors. They show how friendship can transcend differences and how political disagreements can be managed without the vitrol that is all too common among politicians:

Their differences were brought into sharp relief in January when Ms. Lagarde gave a speech at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin in which she demanded that Germany step up its efforts to save the world from “a 1930s moment.” Switching from her fluent English to halting, phonetic German, she concluded with a line by the German poet Goethe. “It is not enough to know, we must apply,” Ms. Lagarde told the audience. “It is not enough to will, we must do.”

The speech made headlines around the world, evidence of a backroom dispute breaking out into the open. Yet Ms. Lagarde had arrived in Berlin on the eve of her address with a copy of the speech, for Ms. Merkel to read, before Ms. Lagarde delivered it in front of the political and foreign-policy establishment. The two women debated the crisis in private over a dinner of veal tenderloin in the modern Chancellery’s eighth-floor dining room.

Ms. Lagarde also brought Ms. Merkel an orange-blossom-scented candle from the French perfumer Fragonard. The candle represented “hope,” Ms. Lagarde said. “Because we had tough discussions,” she said, there “was an element of symbolism about it.”

Ms. Lagarde, 56, and Ms. Merkel, 57, appear to be opposites, the glamorous, Chanel-clad French extrovert and the grounded German introvert, recently spotted doing her own grocery shopping in the same suit jacket she had worn to sign the new European fiscal pact in Brussels earlier that day.

“I’ve been in government and know what securing parliamentary support means,” Ms. Lagarde said. “And equally she appreciates that I speak from a position where I have to think about not only Germany but also the whole of Europe and the stability of the international scene.”


Though Europeans of the same generation, Ms. Merkel and Ms. Lagarde once had lives as divided as the continent they grew up on. Separated throughout their youths by the Iron Curtain, the odds they would meet as politicians at the highest levels was improbable.

Ms. Lagarde was a member of France’s national team for synchronized swimming. Ms. Merkel famously needed to spend an entire swimming class mustering the courage to jump off the diving board. The prospects under Communism for a pastor’s daughter like Ms. Merkel in politics were dim at best, and she became a physicist. Ms. Lagarde became a lawyer and rose to the top of an American corporate firm.

Once they entered politics, their climbs were similarly swift. Ms. Merkel was head of Germany’s largest party, the Christian Democrats, just 10 years after joining in 1990. She beat out career politicians to win the chancellorship five years later in 2005. Ms. Lagarde won the top I.M.F. post a mere six years after joining the French government as trade minister in 2005.

The personal relationship between them was nurtured when Ms. Lagarde became the first and only member of a foreign government to sit in on a German cabinet meeting in March 2010, taking her place across the Chancellery conference table from Ms. Merkel. “It was a very moving moment, because she made a point of inviting me and nobody else,” Ms. Lagarde said.

For Ms. Lagarde, sorting through the differences requires patience, as well as understanding for Ms. Merkel’s deeply analytical, scientific approach. “You have to continuously explain, rationalize, dissect the whys, the pros and the cons and plead your case,” Ms. Lagarde said. “It’s the lawyer and the physicist. I will continue to grit my teeth and smile and keep up the work.”