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France looks skeptically at Sarkozy protegee

European Parliament candidate Rachida Dati has made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

France's Justice Minister Rachida Dati gets in a car after the inauguration of the administrative court of Toulon, southeastern France, Feb. 23, 2009. (Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters)

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.