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Lagarde woos Saudis, says debt top IMF target for her

France's Finance Minister Lagarde meets with Muhammad al-Jasser, governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency in Jeddah
France's Finance Minister Lagarde meets with Muhammad al-Jasser, governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency in Jeddah

By Asma Alsharif

JEDDAH (Reuters) - French Finance Minister and IMF candidate Christine Lagarde said on Saturday tackling sovereign debt troubles would be a priority of the International Monetary Fund if she led the Washington-based rescue lender.

Lagarde, competing with Mexican central bank chief Agustin Carstens, was in Saudi Arabia as part of a world tour where she needs to drum up support among emerging market economies for her IMF candidacy.

South Africa's Trevor Manuel ruled himself out of the race for the IMF's top job on Friday, making Lagarde an even firmer favorite, although she remains under threat of a judicial inquiry in her home country.

"There are specific issues to deal with and clearly some of the sovereign debt crisis issues are one of the priorities at the moment," Lagarde told Reuters on the sidelines of a meeting with Saudi Arabia's Finance Minister Ibrahim Alassaf in Jeddah.

"I will certainly look at one of the purposes of the fund which is to restore stability."

Lagarde is backed by the European Union and a handful of smaller countries from Georgia to Mauritius. Paris is hopeful that Washington and Beijing will also stand behind her.

Brazil, Latin America's biggest economy is leaning toward supporting Lagarde but has not yet made up its mind, officials said on Friday.

REGIONAL SUPPORT

Lagarde said that the IMF should also support countries affected by the pro-democracy protest movement sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.

"If I were elected I want to participate as closely as possible, bringing the special expertise of the fund in order to help out those countries together with the bilateral support that is given by specific countries such as Saudi Arabia," she said.

Riyadh has pledged $4 billion in aid to Egypt and was also instrumental in a $20 billion handout to Bahrain and Oman for job-creating projects.

One potential pitfall for Lagarde is a legal investigation into her role in a 2008 arbitration payout to a French businessman.

A top French court on Friday put off until July 8 its decision on whether to open a formal inquiry into allegations by opposition left-wing deputies that she abused her authority in approving a 285 million-euro payout to a businessman friend of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

(Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Writing by Jason Benham; Editing by Brian Love)

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