Rachida Dati - stilettos with a steely edge

By Elizabeth Day

It seems a little unfair to focus immediately on what Rachida Dati is wearing.

This, after all, is a woman whose extraordinary rise to power has taken her from a council estate upbringing to the highest echelons of French politics.

She was the second of 12 children born to North-African immigrant parents, neither of whom could read or write, yet by the time she was 41 she occupied one of the most senior roles in Government as President Nicolas Sarkozy's Justice Minister - the first woman of Arab descent to be given a key ministerial position in the French cabinet.

At 44, she is now a single mother to a 1-year-old daughter, a member of the European Parliament and mayor of the 7th arrondissement in Paris.

There can be little doubt Dati has more substantial concerns than either her clothes or her appearance. There is part of me that wonders whether Dati will be offended to be asked about her appearance, but this turns out to be wrong. She is only too happy to talk about her clothes.

"For a long time, 'femininity' has been synonymous with 'triviality', but that is not the case at all," she says, her gold hoop earrings shaking as she nods her head for emphasis.

"Femininity is part of being a woman. It is part of my identity to preserve my femininity."

When, two years ago, Dati attended a French state banquet in a slashed-to-the-thigh midnight blue evening gown, it prompted a period of rueful questioning in British press about why their own female MPs were so sartorially uninspired. Her clothes, it seems, go to the very core of Dati's identity; they provide both a means of self-expression and a symbol of her success - a sign of how far she has come from her impoverished start in life.

But while Sarkozy's penchant for Rolex watches and fat cigars is gently tolerated by the French electorate, Dati's love of designer labels has attracted vocal criticism.

As Justice Minister, she infamously posed for a 2007 interview in Paris Match sporting fishnet tights and a pink, leopard-print Dior dress, at a time when she was engaged in a series of judicial reforms that would result in drastic job cuts.

Bruno Thouzellier, president of the Syndical Union of Judges, summed up the national mood by accusing her of showing "frivolity in the face of hardship".

Was she surprised by the criticism? "There are subjects and preoccupations that are much more important in the country. It doesn't interest me to concentrate on my little world, it interests me to address the major issues that concern the French people ... That's more important to me than what people say about photo shoots."

In many ways, the Paris Match debacle seemed to reflect France's conflicted attitude towards its women. Although Sarkozy has championed greater gender parity to government (Dati was one of seven women appointed to a 15-strong cabinet after his election in 2007), universal suffrage did not exist in France until after World War II. It is a society still dripping with misogynist assumptions about male and female roles. Three of the senior women appointed by Sarkozy - including Dati - have since been replaced by men, and only 18 per cent of MPs in France's lower chamber are women.

When Socialist candidate Segolene Royal stood against Sarkozy for the presidency, she was asked repeatedly about who was caring for her daughter during the campaign - a question that was apparently never posed to the centrist candidate, Francois Bayrou, who has six children, or the eurosceptic Philippe de Villiers, who has seven.

Has Dati ever experienced similar sexism? "Not very directly, no, because I've had a very particular trajectory. I come from a very modest background, from foreign origins. I was the first in my family to be born in France, so my personal journey is one of progression and sexism was more or less a matter of course." In a country where the political system has for centuries been the preserve of an elitist, white, male clique (until recently, the vast majority of French politicians were graduates of the "grandes ecoles", a handful of highly-selective universities open to only the top one per cent of the student body), Dati's trajectory has been all the more astonishing.

Dati's father, Mbark, was a stonemason from Morocco and her mother, Fatim-Zohra, was an Algerian farm girl. Dati grew up in a troubled suburb north of Lyon.

When Mbark got a job on a building site at a local Catholic convent school, he persuaded the Mother Superior to allow his two oldest daughters, Malika and Rachida, to study there. Dati worked hard and got good grades, routinely coming top of the class. From the age of 16, she took on part-time jobs to help support the family, including selling Avon beauty products and working on a supermarket check-out.

Where did her drive come from? "It's temperament ... I have always been curious about life, about people, about things. I have a rich life and have had a lot of luck."

But it could easily have gone in another direction: her younger brother, Jamal, is a convicted drug dealer; another brother, Omar, has also been investigated for drug offences.

Dati, however, took a different path. At university in Dijon, she studied economics and began bombarding business leaders with letters asking for advice, internships and jobs.

She went into accountancy and then switched to law, where her swift rise up the ranks of the judiciary brought her to the attention of the young and ambitious Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, who appointed her as his adviser in 2002. Sarkozy's right-wing sympathies and pugnacity seemed to jar with Dati's more liberal sensibilities, but the two of them went on to become extremely close.

For Sarkozy, himself a child of Hungarian immigrants, Dati seemed to embody his vision for a new France that was both egalitarian and ethnically diverse. For her part, Dati calls their relationship "a very personal attachment because I've worked for him for a long time. I've got a lot of respect for him." Sarkozy would go on to promote her, unelected, to one of the highest offices of state, causing widespread irritation among senior government figures.

But Sarkozy then turned on Dati when her attempts to implement radical court and prison reforms foundered in the face of implacable opposition from the judiciary.

When she announced her pregnancy in September 2008, but refused to name the father, the ensuing circus of publicity and speculation was said to have irritated Sarkozy even further.

Last January, five days after the birth of her daughter, Zohra, by Caesarean section, Dati was back at work, desperately trying to cling onto her job and incurring the wrath of feminists, who felt she was deliberately undermining their campaign for the extension of maternity rights.

Does she still get on well with Sarkozy? "Yes. We see each other, we talk about European issues. It's the political life." And what about his wife, the former supermodel Carla Bruni, with whom relations are rumoured to be less friendly? For the first time in our conversation, Dati stumbles slightly over her words. "Er, he's the head of state, his private life is no one's business."

Her attitude to her own privacy is similarly crisp. Dati continues to conceal the identity of Zohra's father, claiming simply her romantic life is "complicated".

There is a slight suggestion of distance between Dati and her one surviving parent. "I hope my father is proud of me. But, at the same time, it is not so much a question of pride between us, it is a question of values.

"I think he is very happy that we have not totally abandoned his values."

In the end, it is difficult not to admire Dati for her unswerving determination to achieve what she sets out to do and her refusal to apologise to anyone for how she does it.

"I come from the principle that you should start off trusting people," she says. "You might be disappointed but then you deal with the consequences, because if you don't trust in the first place, you will never move forward."

CHECK-OUT GIRL TO JUSTICE MINISTER

Born: November 1965 in Saint-Remy, France, one of 12 children to a Moroccan stonemason father and an Algerian mother.

Grew up on an estate north of Lyon and attended a Catholic convent school. From the age of 16 takes part-time jobs to help the family including working as a supermarket cashier. Studies economics at the University of Dijon, then accountancy and law.

2002: Nicolas Sarkozy, France's newly appointed Interior Minister, accepts her offer to advise him on immigration.

May 2007: Becomes French Justice Minister and one of seven women appointed to Sarkozy's 15-strong cabinet. Makes history by being the first female Muslim in a key government position.

Sept 2008: Announces her pregnancy as a single mother. Her refusal to name the father sparks intense speculation.

May 2009: Steps down as a minister to become an MEP.

Sept 2009: A book by her brother Jamal claims she "brought shame on her strictly Muslim family" by having a child out of wedlock.

They say: "Her effortless chic and unaffected professionalism made me and other working mothers want to spit." - Broadcaster, Anne Diamond.

She says: "My life is not a beautiful story. I am not the heroine of an instructive novel to present to people so they can shed a tear or to encourage them to work hard."

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