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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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
• Second of 12 children born to a Moroccan father and Algerian mother
• Raised in public-housing projects
• Earned degrees in economics and law by studying at night
• In 2002, became adviser to then-Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy on relations with immigrant communities
• Appointed justice minister by Sarkozy after he won the presidency in May