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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She was the face of change in ways many didn't expect. She turned out in designer clothes at official events—a full-length Dior gown for a White House dinner, for instance—and posed for the cover of the glossy Paris Match magazine wearing a pink Dior dress and knee-high black leather boots. And Dati's immigrant background has not precluded her from adopting uncompromising positions on law-and-order issues. She defended the establishment of minimum sentences for young offenders, in many cases unemployed immigrants, and instituted a system of penalties that will keep dangerous criminals in prison even after they have completed their sentences. She has also backed calls to jail criminal offenders as young as 12. Sarkozy, with his tough stands on immigration, is detested in the banlieues, the high-rise immigrant ghettos near Paris and other French cities, and Dati is seen as an extension of his conservative policies. To immigrants, says Mehdi Dahar, a 22-year Frenchman of Algerian origin, "she may appear more of a traitor than as someone who is going to serve their cause."

In addition, the so-called judicial reforms have triggered work-stoppage protests from magistrates and lawyers, who complain that her willingness to push through Sarkozy's initiatives endangers the already tenuous independence of the judiciary. And senior staffers have quit, complaining about her manner. Dati has responded to her critics by conceding that she may not be the easiest person to deal with. "Authoritative? One would not say that of a man," the minister told an interviewer from Le Figaro in April. "But I accept it. It is, however, a question of efficiency and not temperament. We are not in a family setting but rather in a professional one."

And some of her defenders see elements of sexism and racism in political attacks on her. "I think that Rachida Dati is paying the price for being an atypical minister because she is young a woman and of North African origin," Dominique Sopo, the president of SOS Racisme, France's best-known antidiscrimination group, told the daily Liberation in 2007. "Unfortunately, this profile creates resentment among a French elite made up of white men over 55."

Inevitably, Dati has found herself caught in the cultural rift between the French mainstream culture and that of the growing Muslim immigrant community. For instance, Dati backed an appeal of a court ruling that annulled a Muslim couple's marriage after the new husband asserted that his wife had lied about her virginity. Dati initially supported the verdict; since the wife hadn't objected to the annulment, this allowed for a dissolution of an unwanted union. But she shifted amid a public outcry that the judgment undermined women's privacy rights and seemed to blur the line between religion and politics. In November, an appeals court reinstated the marriage.

For Dati, the controversy touched on her own past: a forced marriage and later annulment. Those present at her November 1992 wedding recall a barely audible "yes" when asked if she took the Algerian engineer standing at her side as her husband. "I consider the answer to be yes," said the civil officer presiding at the ceremony as some members of Dati's family wept. (The marriage was later annulled.)

Escaping the ghetto. There is no denying that Dati's success is stunning. To recognize just how remarkable, consider her own siblings. Two of her four brothers have been in frequent trouble with the law for a variety of offenses, including drug dealing. And, if it is difficult for the male children of immigrants to climb out of the ghetto, it is even more so for young girls of North African origin. They are often expected to follow traditional practices that include wearing a veil in public and leaving home only when accompanied by a male family member.

Dati recoils at the notion that she is living a Cinderella life. "My life is not a novel; it is a journey," she told the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur after being named justice minister in May 2007. "The more people try to make a storybook out of my life, the more that in reality they try to take away my legitimacy. I worked, that's all, and no one, not even those who do not like me, can take that away from me."