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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


His entry at the top is not so much a mark
of any expansion of the IMF's mandate,
but more a consequence of Asia's
dramatic fall from economic grace

By Alejandro Reyes


Next Page

Main Story

IF ONLY HE HAD BEEN SITTING, PERHAPS INDONESIANS MIGHT THINK DIFFERENTLY OF MICHEL CAMDESSUS. But they - and many Asians as well - will long remember the International Monetary Fund managing director for the way he stood watching as President Suharto in January signed Jakarta's first rescue deal with the IMF. His body angled and his arms crossed, the bespectacled bureaucrat peered down as the Indonesian leader hunched over a table. To critics of his body language, the Frenchman re-minded them of a victorious Douglas MacArthur receiving the Ja-panese surrender. His mother's advice had let him down, Cam-dessus confided recently. "I had remembered her telling me that you have two solutions. First is the British one - you put [your arms] behind your back. The other was that we fold them. This is the only time my mother's principles have betrayed me."

Power, of course, means never having to say you're sorry. And Camdessus, 65, is rarely one to apologize publicly. At one time or another in his 11 years as IMF chief, he has irked many of the Washington-based organization's 182 member nations. In 1994, he upset the G7 group of industrialized countries when he sought to create a $50 billion global reserve fund. Britain, Ger-many and the U.S. alleged that Camdessus aspired to build an em-pire. At a dramatic midnight press conference in Madrid, the former French central banker refused to retreat. "I'm possibly too im-modest, but I am the managing director of the IMF," he said. "My duty is not to look at what the industrial countries think. My duty is to give a judgment on what is in the global need." Months later, he irritated the Europeans when, without consulting his agency's own board, he committed IMF funds to bail out crisis-hit Mexi-co. In 1996 Camdessus was accused of meddling in Russian politics when he pushed through a $10.2-billion loan to Moscow prior to presidential elections.

Camdessus's effrontery has drawn criticism from both the Left and the Right. Back home, socialists have blasted him for slavishly promoting free-market ideals. Conservative opponents say he is a self-righteous socialist with a heart bleeding for de-veloping countries. To be on the receiving end of abuse from all sides - and still appear the quintessential unflappable diplomat - requires supreme confidence. Camdessus certainly has that. In 1996 the IMF governing board reappointed him to an unpre-cedented third term. He has steadily built up the IMF's authority and his own, often standing up to the world's high and mighty with little more than his convictions. In doing so, he now operates at a level where few but the most senior international powerbroker-bureaucrats dare to tread.

"Damn right he can be tough," former American treasury secretary Lloyd Bentsen once said. Paul Volcker, ex-chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, called Camdessus "an activist. Without his leadership, the Fund might have receded into desuetude." Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, no IMF fan, has praised Camdessus for his independence. He may be hard-nosed, but friend and foe alike concur the IMF chief is affable and approachable - a gentle boss who remembers the birthdays of colleagues. Camdessus gushes with pride for his 2,600-strong staff, whom he grandly declared recently to be "the most magnificent bureaucracy in the world."

Born in Bayonne, a town in France's Basque country on the border with Spain, Camdessus had the sort of charmed education that is a prerequisite to reaching the highest echelons of French government or business. After studying law at the University of Paris, he picked up post-graduate degrees in economics from the Institute of Political Studies and the Na-tional School of Administration (ENA, by its French initials). ENA graduates - among them, President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin - are branded for life as "énarques," a special tribe of over-achievers reputed to have such finely tuned minds that they can pontificate fluently on any topic from finance to philosophy. Camdessus's high-octane schooling opened doors. He joined the French civil service in 1960, working his way up to head the Treasury in 1982, the year after the Socialists came to power under President Fran-çois Mitterrand. In 1984 Camdessus was appointed deputy governor of the Bank of France, becoming the central bank's head three months later. Three years later he succeeded compatriot Jacques de Larosire as IMF MD.

Initially, Camdessus kept a low profile. But after his mandate was renewed in 1992, he blossomed. In crisis-battered Asia, he is no longer the faceless bureaucrat. Hailed as the region's savior, he is equally reviled as its tormentor. The countries in turmoil have had little choice but to accept the IMF's cruel-to-be-kind prescriptions. In Indonesia, after fuel prices rose on the elimination of subsidies, protests began, leading to deadly rioting. Cam-dessus, whose father was a journalist, usually weighs his words carefully. But as unrest in In-donesia unfolded (though before any protesters were killed), he came across as not a little callous in an interview he gave in Singapore, where he had opened an IMF training facility. "Don't put the blame on the doctor for the illness," he insisted. "The IMF is not the policeman of the world. The IMF is there to negotiate economic programs and to have them implemented. For human rights, go to the U.N."

Despite such rare moments of abandoned délicatesse, Camdessus has been credited with shaping the IMF into a kinder, gentler, more open organization. He has emphasized the need for safety nets to help Asia's poorest through the crisis. Confidants say Camdessus, a practicing Catholic, is deeply committed to social justice and determined to promote it. As Bank of France governor, he claimed his oath of office and his sense of honor bestowed on him an "absolute independence." Doubtless, he is taking the same approach at the IMF.

Yet the IMFhead is not fully his own master. The U.S., the biggest contributor to the organization, has the most voting power among members. Camdessus enjoys the support of the Clinton administration, which is trying to persuade the U.S. Congress to approve more funding for the IMF. Those efforts could fail. Some American politicians bristle at the IMF's secretiveness and the high salaries of its staff. (Camdessus earns some $224,650 a year plus a generous allowance, tax-free.) His enemies say he uses crises as an excuse to build up his organization's financial resources - and his power. Camdessus responds that he aims only to maintain global monetary stability. Without fresh funds, the IMF's work could be seriously hampered. As quickly as Asia's tigers lost their bite, Camdessus could discover what every power player in the region knows only too well: that, today, cash is king.

- With additional reporting by Andrée Feillard/Paris

and Andrea Hamilton/Singapore



BORN May 1, 1933, in Bayonne, France

EDUCATION Post-graduate degrees in economics

FAMILY Two sons, four daughters with wife Brigitte d'Arcy

ADDRESS 700 19th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20431, USA

POWER POINTS For 11 years, he has presided over the IMF, boosting the organization's authority. With Asia in crisis, he has become the agent of change in the region. Countries in turmoil have had to accept tough IMF prescriptions. Cam-dessus wants to widen the powers of the IMF and is seeking new funding. If the U.S. balks at providing more money, Camdessus could easily see his wings clipped. But for now, he is Asia's savior - and its tormentor.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel ě at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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