Rachida Dati Sarkozy Stays Loyal to Increasingly Divisive Minister

By in Paris

Part 2: Winning Over the Sarkozys

Dati laid the cornerstone for her political career in 1987. During a reception at the Algerian embassy, she met then Minister of Justice Albin Chalandon, who came away with the impression that she was a "small person with formidable assertiveness."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has stood by the minister despite growing criticism about her authoritarian style.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has stood by the minister despite growing criticism about her authoritarian style.

From then on Dati was unrelenting, sending almost weekly letters to her mentor, determined that he would not forget her. Chalandon got her a trainee position in the accounting department at multinational oil company Elf Aquitaine. At the same time, Dati, still a student at the time, began to systematically expand her network, seeking contact with the rich and powerful in business and law.

She managed to systematically enchant everyone she met, including prominent French businessman Jean-Luc Lagardère, who hired this "astonishing woman" for a position at the company he headed, Matra Nortel Telecommunications, and Jacques Attali, an advisor and close confidant of then President François Mitterrand, who secured Dati a position with the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and who calls her "dynamic, precise, serious, stubborn, ambitious and a perfectionist." Simone Veil, the minister of health at the time, says she was practically overwhelmed by Dati's "vision and humanity" when the two met in 1993. "I recognized right away that she is a pearl," says Veil. The younger Dati became a "friend for life" to Veil, considered by many to be the Grande Dame of French politics.

Veil advised Dati to focus on a judicial career, even lending Dati her own robe to wear during her oral examination after completing a two-year training program at a special school for magistrates. Dati went on to acquire experience as a juvenile, family and investigative judge in the French provinces. During a stint as a judge on an understaffed court in Evry, one of the troubled Paris suburbs that would later be the scene of riots, Dati did double duty handling financial and commercial cases during her regular hours and the poor suburb's criminal cases on weekends and during her vacations. She still has the reputation in Evry of being a "diligent workaholic."

But Dati wanted to play a more involved role, one in which she would take part in the drafting of legislation. In September 2002, she managed to secure an appointment with then Interior Minister Sarkozy, whom she had met six years earlier when he was still a young politician and mayor of another Paris suburb Neuilly. She offered to help the go-getting Sarkozy in his campaign against crime, overwhelming him with her arguments and ideas on preventive measures, not even allowing Sarkozy to get in a word in edgewise. She wanted the job. "If he opens his mouth," she thought, "I want him to be saying yes."

Sarkozy did say yes. Perhaps he sensed Dati's drive to succeed and her perseverance. From them on she spent her timing traveling throughout France, drumming up support among immigrants from North and Sub-Saharan Africa and providing candidate Sarkozy with the necessary contacts with voters in the suburbs, including young people, exemplary business owners and prominent citizens. As a sign of his gratitude, Sarkozy made Dati his spokesperson on Jan. 14, 2007, the same day his party endorsed his bid for president.

'She is my Sister'

Cecilia Sarkozy and Rachida Dati attending the funeral of Sarkozy's ex-husband Jacques Martin. The two are firm friends, with the first lady referring to Dati as her "sister"
Getty Images

Cecilia Sarkozy and Rachida Dati attending the funeral of Sarkozy's ex-husband Jacques Martin. The two are firm friends, with the first lady referring to Dati as her "sister"

The appointment of the eloquent Dati proved to be a stroke of PR genius. As she skillfully made the rounds of the talk shows and political debates, Dati became the modern face of Sarkozy's conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party. Political adversaries initially derided her as "Sarkozy's token Arab." Nevertheless, Sarkozy, otherwise notorious for his calculated outbursts against the young "scum" of the suburbs and for accusing Muslim immigrants of "slaughtering sheep in their bathtubs," emerged as a champion of social equality.

Sarkozy's wife Cécilia was certainly behind Dati's appointment. "Rachida embodies the things that are important in France today," she told her husband in her effort to secure the ministerial post for her close friend. Dati, for her part, had quickly recognized how much influence the former fashion model has on her husband's decisions. And when the Sarkozys' marriage was threatened when Cécilia had an affair in 2005, it was Dati who stayed in telephone contact with her friend. While the then interior minister's staff kept its distance from the unfaithful wife, Rachida called Cécilia once or twice a week to report on her unhappy husband's emotional roller coaster ride.

"She stood by me when I wasn't very popular," Cécilia later recalled, after the Sarkozys had reconciled. "She is more than a friend to me. She is my sister. I will never let her down."

The Sarkozys' move into the Elysée Palace hasn't changed the close friendship between Dati and Cécilia Sarkozy, who once said: "Rachida has told me some of the most beautiful stories I have every heard." Dati is part of the Sarkozys' innermost circle, accompanying the French first lady on shopping sprees in Cannes and visiting the family when they vacationed at a luxury resort in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.

Back in Paris, the resilient relationship between Dati and Sarkozy has even weathered growing annoyance within the UMP over the justice minister's authoritarian style. Sarkozy, who normally has no qualms about publicly chastising ministers and employees alike as "idiots" and who is planning to revamp his cabinet at the beginning of the year, has steadfastly supported Dati.

Comments Cécilia Sarkozy made in early July on the relationship between the president and his justice minister are still just as valid today: "My husband trusts her. He is proud of her. She doesn't make mistakes and she never does anything stupid. Besides, she's attractive."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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