In clubby France, a Muslim woman as justice minister
Rachida Dati presents Nicholas Sarkozy's tough law-and-order proposals to the Senate this week.
Paris — As the new French government this week begins driving conservative crime-fighting reforms through parliament, its chief wrangler will be a doe-eyed Muslim who grew up in public housing.
Her background may be unconventional and her political experience thin. But Justice Minister Rachida Dati has already proved adept at breaking through barriers.
Ms. Dati is the first minister of North African heritage and one of seven cabinet-level women in France's most diverse government ever. One of 12 children raised by a Moroccan father and an Algerian mother, she is a distinct oddity in the clubby, Christian, and male-dominated political elite.
Her trajectory from a crowded apartment block to the gilded corridors of French power is also an exception in a country where social advancement is rare for people of immigrant descent. She's been held up as a minority success story, a testament to the value of hard work and a trophy for her mentor, President Nicolas Sarkozy and his idealized vision of France as a meritocracy.
Arabs from the former French colonies in North Africa have been settling in France in large numbers for 50 years and are thought to make up nearly 10 percent of the population. Some have made it as athletes or musicians. But they have yet to reach comparable weight in the top ranks of business, academia, and politics.
Letter to Sarkozy: 'You need me'
The insecurities that hold back many French Arabs seemed foreign to Dati, or kept well-hidden, according to friends.
"She is representative of the new generation, the people with ambition and university degrees who demand to be treated on an equal footing," says Hakim el-Karoui, a banker and cofounder, with Dati, of a club for up-and-coming activists of immigrant heritage.
Unlike many of her associates in the 21st-Century Club, Dati found her home on France's political right wing. She owes her swift ascension to astute and determined networking, begun when she was a schoolgirl writing admiring letters to the famous people she read about in magazines.
Five years ago, when she was working as a junior magistrate in a rough suburban courthouse, she wrote to Mr. Sarkozy, then interior minister. Her message, in essence: "You need me."
After the third letter, Sarkozy, himself the son of an immigrant, agreed to meet her. In 2002, he hired her to improve his relations with the Arab and black minorities in restive suburban ghettos. When he ran for president this year, Dati was his campaign spokeswoman.
Her high-profile presence did little to erase her boss's negative image in immigrant neighborhoods, where he is remembered for calling young criminals "scum" and saying that French Muslims "slaughtered sheep in their bathtubs." Residents voted overwhelmingly for Sarkozy's opponent.
Dati, however, won admirers as the liaison to the candidate.
"She was simple, natural, and spontaneous," says Nadji Hamida, a protester-turned-activist from the Paris suburb of Argenteuil, where Sarkozy made his controversial "scum" remark two years ago. "She listened to us."
Now, as justice minister, Dati will have another hard sell.
She's the point person for Sarkozy's tough law-and-order program, which the main judges' union considers repressive. It includes proposals for longer sentences for repeat offenders and more jail time for teen criminals. She is also working on his controversial plan to introduce affirmative action in the French workplace, a Sarkozy project that has already met strong institutional opposition.
In heralding her appointment last month, Sarkozy said he chose her "so that no child of our suburbs could doubt that in France there is only one standard of justice, applied equally to everyone."
'Dazzled' by Dati's energy
Dati was born in the village of Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, where her Moroccan father worked as a stone mason. But she spent most of her youth in Chalon-sur-Saone, first in a rundown housing project and then in a newly built suburb of factories and apartment blocks.
She was sent, along with her younger sisters, to a private Catholic school. In her catechism class, she convinced the teachers to let her read out a weekly passage from the Koran for discussion by her fellow students.
At 14, according to her own accounts and those of her family, she sold cosmetics door-to-door. At 16, she worked at night as a nurse's aide in a clinic.
While studying economics at a college in Dijon, she noticed a newspaper story about an upcoming reception at the Algerian Embassy in Paris for then-Justice Minister Albin Chalandon. She requested, and got, an invitation. At the party, she zeroed in on Mr. Chalandon and asked him to help her find a good job.
In an interview with Le Monde, he described being "dazzled by this energy that radiated from her."
"I can help you put one foot in the stirrup," he said he told her, "but you have to prove that you can put the other one there."
Chalandon was only the first of the many high-placed officials and corporate titans that she sought out and approached for support. From short stints at French companies, including the oil giant Elf-Aquitaine, she nurtured an impressive list of contacts.
In 1997, at the urging of her influential mentors, she applied to the prestigious National College of Magistrates. Being a judge, one of them told her, would give her status in French society. She won a place in the training school and worked for two years as a magistrate, dealing mostly with bankruptcy and financial-fraud cases.
But she had bigger ambitions to influence policy. Her opportunity came in October 2005, when Sarkozy made a tumultuous visit as Interior minister to the crime-ridden housing projects in Argenteuil.
Surrounded by hostile, shouting residents, his official car in flames, he took the cellphone numbers of some of the angry young people who demanded to talk to him. A few days later, he invited a group to the ministry and assigned Dati to work with them.
An ear – and a model – for minorities
Over the next year, she made numerous forays to the suburbs, meeting at least monthly with a core group of activists. They ended up producing a hefty report on discrimination and held a conference last December.
"We created a real professional relationship," recalls Mr. Hamida. "He gave her the green light and left her the initiative. And Rachida Dati was very good with us. We always had her ear."
None of the young people had been in a government ministry, much less met a minister. Nor had they met many people like themselves – the children of poor and illiterate Arab immigrants – who had achieved success in politics or business.
"A lot of young people in the suburbs don't even have such dreams because they're not exposed to success," says Hamida. "Because no one was doctor or an engineer in their environment, they have the impression that success is reserved for others."
Dati provided a model, he added. "When you see a woman from an immigrant background becoming a minister, you think, 'OK, she worked hard and got somewhere, so it's possible.' "
As the new Justice minister, her diplomatic skills will be put to the test. Many people in the judicial system have been offended over the past few years by Sarkozy's brusque comments and hard-line approach.
Her loyalty to the new president seems heartfelt and personal. "No one ever gave him anything," she once said of Sarkozy. "What he has achieved, he seized on his own. Something about that resonates within me. A refusal to accept destiny, perhaps."