The Storm Around France’s First Muslim Cabinet Minister, Rachida Dati

As justice minister, Dati is caught up in political and cultural tensions.

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PARIS—Born in France to poor Muslim immigrant parents, French Justice Minister Rachida Dati is a powerful symbol of a society that is changing rapidly, if reluctantly. Intelligent, young, ambitious, attractive, she is a fighter driven by outsize ambition and cheekiness in a country where immigrants rarely attain stellar heights in business, academia, the media, or government. Her ascendance is the French version of "Yes We Can."

But what happens when the symbol of change runs into the hard wall of political reality, or, as some see it, sexism and bigotry? Dati, France's first Muslim cabinet minister, is proving to be a lightning rod. Issues from her haute-couture wardrobe and "complicated" personal life to her advocacy of tough policies on crime and judicial reform have put her front and center in the French press.

Ironically, the news that unmarried Dati, 43, is expecting a baby in January has been the least of the issues in a country in which about half of all babies are born to unwed mothers (with some couples opting for civil partnerships rather than marriage). But the rounds of speculation over the father, whom she chooses not to identify, has brought an element of farce with awkward denials of paternity from various men, including a former Spanish prime minister and a prominent sports figure.

On the outs? By some accounts, Dati's mentor, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, is looking for a way to ease her out—even though many of the most disputed judicial measures, such as stricter sentencing rules, reflect his policy priorities. It probably doesn't help that she has been close to Sarkozy's now ex-wife Cecilia and reportedly has a chilly relationship with his current wife, singer and former model Carla Bruni. But Sarkozy risks political damage to himself if he is seen as eager to toss his protégé overboard. Some speculate that the baby's birth will give her cover to leave politics or acquiesce to a less prominent government position. "If her name was not Dati, she would no longer be a minister," a cabinet colleague says under cover of anonymity.

Dati's life may be seen as something of a rags-to-riches story with an Arab twist. Born in the Burgundy village of Saint-Rémy, she was the second of 12 children of a Moroccan stonemason and an illiterate Algerian mother. By 14, she was selling cosmetics door to door, soon becoming Avon's best saleswoman in the region. It was a preview of what would become the Dati technique—selling her product and herself. "I was staggered by the energy and the dynamism of this young lady," Pierre de Bosquet, a former head of the French Intelligence Services, recalled many years later. "She was not afraid of anything; she had no complexes. Nothing could stop her."

After selling cosmetics, Dati held numerous jobs to help her struggling family and pay for her education. Baby sitter, of course, but also cashier at a local supermarket and night nurse for three years while studying economics at the University of Paris. In 1987, she sent a letter to the Algerian Embassy asking to be invited to its Independence Day celebration. It was there that she approached the then French Justice Minister Albin Chalandon and managed to get the stately man to invite her to lunch. Today, 21 years later, the two are still close friends.

Her contacts with the powerful helped open doors for jobs in accounting at the Elf Aquitaine Oil Co. and in the audit department at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Eventually, under the advice of former Social Affairs Minister Simone Veil, regarded as the grand lady of French politics, Dati attended magistrates' school, which enabled her to become a family, juvenile, and investigative judge. Dati met Sarkozy when he was mayor of the rich Paris suburb of Neuilly, later becoming his spokeswoman during the 2007 presidential campaign.

Dati's appointment to the sensitive post of justice minister last year was seen as a masterful political stroke by the newly elected, law-and-order President Sarkozy. It was presented as an unequivocal message to the alienated immigrant youths that they can have faith in the French judicial system and, by extension, in the nation itself. France has the largest Muslim population in western Europe (about 6 million in a population of 63 million), most like Dati tracing their heritage to France's former Northern Africa colonies of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Her appointment was striking, given that the nation's Muslims, most living in impoverished suburban neighborhoods with high crime and unemployment, have little representation in the political system.