Rachida Dati Sarkozy Stays Loyal to Increasingly Divisive Minister

Rachida Dati's steep climb from her immigrant childhood to the post of justice minister makes her a symbolic figure in the cabinet of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. But recently the minister has been fiercely criticized for her authoritarian style and willingness to do the president's bidding.

By in Paris

French Justice Minister Rachida Dati has come under attack for her authoritarian style.

French Justice Minister Rachida Dati has come under attack for her authoritarian style.

When she smiles her brown eyes sparkle. She's literally beaming, her face exuding empathy. Rachida Dati tosses her head back and switches on her charm, enough to trigger a nuclear meltdown of emotions.

On this morning, the French justice minister is about to apply her charm to her hosts in the western French city of Nantes. Dressed in black trousers and a white linen jacket, she walks buoyantly through the courtyard of the Anjorrant home for single, underage mothers, once operated by the sisters of the Order of Christ the Redeemer. One of the residents, a girl named Odile, 15, her eight-month-old son on her arm, hesitates for only a moment before she is overcome by Dati's charisma. Madame Faivre, the home's stern director, has already been won over. Less than two hours later, at the staid center of France's criminal register, Dati soon has officials practically eating out of her hand.

The same scenario repeats itself wherever she goes. A week later Dati, a slim woman, enjoys a hearty round of applause from employees at the regional court in the eastern city of Colmar. Even the presidents of the courts, well aware of their own importance, were clearly impressed by the new justice minister at a meeting in early September in her office on Place Vendôme in Paris. Rachida Dati, young, dynamic and attractive, is the undisputed star in Sarkozy's cabinet.

Virtually unknown eight months ago, the justice minister is now one of the most popular politicians among conservative voters in Sarkozy's lineup of cabinet ministers.

Not only does the 41-year-old Dati embody generational change, but she is also a symbol of the "rupture" with the ponderous traditions of the Fifth Republic that characterize the Sarkozy administration.

Dati's impressive rags-to-riches story plays conveniently into Sarkozy's promise of social mobility under his administration, exemplifying his "Message to a diverse France, where everyone has an opportunity." The appointment of a woman of North African descent to a ministerial post is proof positive of the successful integration of a daughter of immigrants, and it demonstrates "that in France there is only one justice for all citizens."

That's the one side of Madame Dati, the one she has carefully cultivated in public.

But there is also another side. Since taking charge at the Justice Ministry, Dati has acquired a reputation for being a cruel taskmaster among the more than 8,300 judges, 21,300 judicial officials and 30,000 prison officials in the French judicial system. She quickly dismisses advisors and officials who object to her approach by calling them "substandard." Eight of her closest advisors resigned or were fired by their choleric boss within weeks of her taking office. The Nouvel Observateur has mockingly dubbed her the "Iron Lady."

Her management style is no longer the only issue. Dati sees herself as the voice of her president, putting into action whatever the Elysée dictates. Despite objections from experts in the French parliament, she gave her blessing to a new law that stipulates minimum sentences for young repeat offenders. This tough stance on young criminals was one of the president's campaign promises. If Sarkozy calls for more severe penalties for pedophiles or criminal convictions for the certifiably insane, Dati will undoubtedly be the loyal executor of the presidential will.

Anyone who raises objections quickly feels the brunt of the minister's fury. A district attorney from the northeastern French city of Nancy who apparently dared to criticize the new law on young repeat offenders, saying "judicial officers are not the instruments of power," was promptly summoned to Paris. In a television interview, Dati made her position unequivocally clear: "I am in charge of the district attorneys," adding that they were there to apply the law in the name of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Escaping Provincial Claustrophobia

This imperious approach to the law has met with disapproval and dissent from the opposition and the country's trade unions, as well as legal experts. "If the justice minister is content with being the executing hand of the presidential will," says Philippe Bilger, a district attorney on the Paris Court of Appeals, "she has misconstrued her role."

Dati doesn't seem to be troubled by these concerns. She fulfills her office exactly the way the president fulfills his. "PR work is part of my job," she says. She has been quick to put her principles into action, promptly paying a high-profile visit to a prison on the outskirts of Paris on the first evening after her inauguration. Even Sarkozy has trouble keeping up.

Members of the minister's staff at Place Vendôme quickly dismiss her critics as begrudging male chauvinists or obstinate members of a calcified machine unwilling to accept reform, a machine whose structures date back to the Napoleonic era. But despite her repeated gaffs, the justice minister has managed to retain an aura of success and elegance. She readily airs her fascinating biography as if it were some costly perfume -- and a French dream.

"Don't turn my life into a novel," says Dati, referring to the never-ending references to her past. But to ignore it would be next to impossible.

Her life is the story of a woman who liberated herself from the provincial claustrophobia of the Burgundy region, where she was born, in Saint-Rémy in 1965, as the eldest daughter in a family of 12 children. Her father, a bricklayer from Morocco, and her mother, an illiterate Algerian housewife, moved to the town, which is near Chalon-sur-Saône in southern France, two years before she was born. She was sent to a Catholic school run by nuns called "Le Devoir," or "The Duty," where the nuns enforced a strict 8:30 p.m. curfew.

Money was tight and by the time she was 14 Dati was selling cosmetics door-to-door. She quickly became the top-selling Avon saleswoman in her region. Two years later she went to Dijon to study economics, first working as a night nurse to pay for her economics studies. She was apparently involved in a brief, unhappy and quickly annulled marriage during this time between high school and university, one of the episodes in her life that the minister prefers to downplay today. "I have certainly suffered my share of pain, worries and injuries," she says, alluding to her time in Dijon.


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