BERLIN (AP) - The leaders of Europe's biggest economy are throwing their weight behind France's Christine Lagarde as the search to find a new leader for the International Monetary Fund intensifies.
Lagarde has emerged as a front-runner to replace Dominique Strauss-Kahn, also of France, who resigned this week to face charges in New York that he tried to rape a hotel maid. He denies the charges.
Germany's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble on Saturday voiced strong support for his French counterpart, and Chancellor Angela Merkel called her a "distinguished" and "very experienced" personality.
"Europe would have the best chance to secure the post again with Christine Lagarde, if she decides to run," Schaeuble told the German weekly Bild am Sonntag.
He was quoted as saying that Lagarde was "outstandingly qualified" and "extremely respected and appreciated in the entire financial world."
Schaeuble and Merkel both stressed that it is crucial that all Europeans now rally behind a candidate.
Merkel on Saturday stopped short of formally endorsing Lagarde but said she was a "distinguished" and "very experienced" personality.
Schaeuble closely coordinates his position with Merkel in such cases - as they recently demonstrated when they successively endorsed Italy's Mario Draghi in his bid to become the next president of the European Central Bank.
The IMF insists that Strauss-Kahn's departure has not hurt its day-to-day operations, but it is clearly under pressure to find a successor fast to lead an organization that provides billions in loans to stabilize the world economy.
The 24-member executive board, which will pick Strauss-Kahn's successor, held a preliminary discussion on Friday at the IMF's headquarters in Washington. They said in a statement late Friday that the selection of the fund's new Managing Director will be completed by the end of next month.
But many say the fund - shaken by Strauss-Kahn's abrupt departure while it plays a crucial role in Europe's ongoing sovereign debt crisis - needs to get a new leader even faster to get his job done.
The chairman of the organization's policy advisory committee, Singapore's Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, said the IMF is facing pressing challenges and speedy selection of a new leader would be good.
The selection process to find a new IMF chief should be open, transparent and merit-based, the chairman of the IMF's International Monetary and Financial Committee said in a statement Saturday.
A U.S. Treasury official earlier this week said the United States had not decided whether to support Lagarde or a non-European for the job.
The European Union's 27 members combined hold the biggest IMF stake, but emerging economies see Europe's traditional stranglehold on the position as increasingly out of touch with the world economy.
However, they have not yet united around a candidate.
Lagarde's chances for the job got a boost Friday when Kemal Dervis, a former finance minister for Turkey who had been considered the leading non-European candidate, said he did not want to be considered for the position.
Germany's Schaeuble also defended the decades-old agreement under which an American gets to lead the World Bank and a European its sister institution, the IMF.
"After all, the U.S. and Europe pay by far the biggest share of the contributions. It's like in a publicly traded company: Those who hold the majority of shares will also get to name the chairman," he was further quoted as saying.
Lagarde, 55, has a clean-cut image and has been praised for her acumen in helping steer Europe through the global financial crisis and its more recent debt woes. She speaks impeccable English and spent much of her career in the United States as a lawyer.