France looks skeptically at Sarkozy protegee

PARIS — As President Nicolas Sarkozy’s protegee, Justice Minister Rachida Dati rose quickly to the upper ranks of the French political elite. With a number of ministerial fumbles since her Cabinet-level appointment two years ago, has she become more of a party liability than an asset?

If Dati’s life story of triumphing over adversity to achieve her aims is any measure, the candidate presently occupying the second spot on her party’s list for the European Parliament elections should not be discounted easily.

At Sarkozy’s urging, Dati, 43, is running alongside Michel Barnier, the Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, who is at the top of the Union for a Popular Movement party list for the greater Paris area. Observers say Sarkozy’s insistence that she serve in one of the world’s most powerful legislatures is a face-saving measure that will essentially allow Dati to leave her high-level government post quietly after a less than stellar stint as the Keeper of the Seals.

Though her political future as an MEP is almost all but assured, even that role was called into question after her appearance at a UMP meeting with the party’s younger constituents late last month. The candidate muddled and giggled her way through questions about Europe, renewable energy and the general role of Parliament. Her defenders said the meeting, with its game show-like format, called for a touch of levity; her detractors said it seemed as though she was not taking the election seriously.

(Read here Mildrade Cherfils' Dispatch about another young and somewhat controversial UMP politician, Rama Yade.)

Harlem Desir, a parliamentarian for 10 years who is running at the top of the Socialist Party list, told a television news program that he was “scandalized” by the thought of sending people who are less than competent to parliament, as if it were “a place to send disgraced pro-Sarkozy ministers.”

But defending Dati, UMP party secretary Xavier Bertrand said he was incensed by what he deemed as simple “harassment” and strongly objected to the treatment she received following the meeting, calling it a “pure shame.” Internet clips of her exchange with the audience have been downloaded thousands of times.

When Dati was picked to join Sarkozy’s inner circle following his 2007 election, her appointment was seen as a step forward in diversifying an old, white, male-centered government, despite her lack of political experience. French-born Dati, the second of 12 children of North African parents from Algeria and Morocco, overcame an early life of poverty to become the highest-ranking member of government with immigrant roots.

Her title, even though she had never held elected office, was meant to convey a positive message to other French citizens with immigrant backgrounds, especially unemployed youth from beleaguered suburbs. But her “up by the bootstraps” tale did little to quiet the cynical mutterings that it was her friendship with Sarkozy’s ex-wife, the former Cecilia Ciganer-Albeniz, that helped propel her to the top judicial job.

On the boss’s orders, during her tenure in a position akin to that of Attorney General in the United States, Dati successfully pushed through judicial reforms such as closing courts and introducing mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders. She met with strong resistance from magistrates who accused her of alienating them and not listening to their concerns over crowded prisons and high suicide rates among detainees. One judge who declined to be named said she had never seen her colleagues so militant, staging demonstrations at courthouses in protest of reforms. Several aides from Dati’s own ministry resigned, citing difficulties in working with her.

Dati’s poor handling of another case was also seen as enormous blunder. Though she eventually reversed course following an outcry, she initially supported a ruling to annul a marriage between two Muslims because the husband claimed the wife was not a virgin.

She has vacillated between being a media darling, celebrated for her fashion sense and flair, to being maligned for her extravagance and penchant for designer clothing. Her reputation and poll numbers have suffered with each glossy magazine cover, with her celebrity status seeming to make a mockery of the seriousness of her position.

Earlier this year, Dati’s “complicated” personal life enmeshed again with her political life, with her decision to return to work just five days after giving birth to a daughter by cesarean section in a country where mothers are allowed at least 16 weeks of maternity leave. The very private matter was played out in public with women viscerally debating the issue, some lauding her tenacity and others criticizing her superwoman complex. The controversy thickened with the unmarried minister’s refusal to name the father.

A stretch as a Member of Parliament might just be the chance Dati needs to repair her battered reputation and concentrate on another prize. She reportedly has her sights set on running for mayor of Paris in 2014.

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