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Lagarde's lawyer to seek delay in French negligence trial

A lawyer for International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde says he will ask judges to postpone a high-profile trial in which she is accused of negligence for allowing a huge handout to a well-connected businessman.

Ms Lagarde is due to appear in a special Paris court when the trial opens in the case, which dates to her time as French finance minister in 2008. She contests the charges.

The well-respected, silver-haired 60-year-old faces up to a year in prison if convicted.

The trial is due to last until December 20. The judges are expected to return a verdict in the wake of the last hearing, but they can also announce a ruling at a later date.

One of her lawyers, Patrick Maisonneuve, argued on Europe-1 radio that it does not make sense for Ms Lagarde to go on trial while a separate investigation in the case is still under way.

He said the then-minister was just following instructions from her administration, and did not have time to read all 15 years of legal files in the case.

The case revolves around a 403 million euro (£336 million) arbitration deal given to tycoon Bernard Tapie in 2008 over the botched sale of sportswear maker Adidas in the 1990s. The amount of the award prompted indignation in France.

Soon after the arbitration deal was concluded, investigators suspected that the whole process was rigged in favour of Mr Tapie, a business magnate with close connections with political circles, including then-president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Civil courts have since quashed the unusually generous award, declared the arbitration process and deal fraudulent and ordered Tapie to pay the money back.

Separately, a criminal investigation into the case is still ongoing. In that case, Mr Tapie, his lawyer, one of the arbitrators and Ms Lagarde's chief of staff at the ministry, Stephane Richard, now the CEO of the telecom company Orange, were given criminal charges of gang-related fraud, and Ms Lagarde's Paris home was searched by police.

Mr Tapie later got another charge of misappropriation of funds.

Ms Lagarde's trial and possible conviction may raise concern about her ability to remain the head of the IMF.

The Washington-based institution's credibility was already shaken when her predecessor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, also a French citizen, was forced to resign amid sexual assault allegations in 2011.

The IMF's board has so far supported Ms Lagarde at all stages of the French legal proceedings, which began the month after her appointment in July 2011.

Ms Lagarde, the first woman to become finance minister of a Group of Eight country and to be appointed IMF chief, has said she is taking time off her day job during her trial.

As a former minister, Ms Lagarde cannot be tried in regular courts for any alleged wrongdoing while in office.

Instead, she is due to appear in the Court of Justice of the Republic, a special body that tries government ministers for alleged wrongdoing while in office.

She is accused of "serious negligence" which allegedly allowed other people in the case to commit a suspected major misappropriation of public funds.

Investigating judges say Ms Lagarde committed a series of serious errors when she made the arbitration choice and also, later on, when she refused to challenge the deal, suggesting she may have been influenced by the political connections between Mr Tapie and Mr Sarkozy, according to court documents.

"Ms Lagarde's behaviour proceeds not only from a questionable carelessness and precipitation, but also from a conjunction of faults which, by their nature, number and seriousness, exceed the level of mere negligence," the judges wrote at the end of their investigation.

Also unusual, Ms Lagarde was sent to trial by investigating judges even though prosecutors argued the case should be dropped.

The prosecutors in her trial will be the same as those who made the dismissal plea, which will help Ms Lagarde's lawyers in the upcoming proceedings.

AP

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