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.
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."
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'
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