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.
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."
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