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PARIS (Reuters) - Symbol of immigrant success or social climber? Brave reformer or fashion victim? Question marks hang over French Justice Minister Rachida Dati as she opens a new chapter of her turbulent career.
Dati is running for a European parliament seat in Sunday's election and as number two on the ruling party's list for the Paris region she is sure to win. But it will be a sour victory for a woman who is used to being a star, not one of a crowd.
In her two years in government, Dati, 43, has made an impact second only to that of her mentor President Nicolas Sarkozy. From her disputed policies to her Dior dresses, her personality to a mysterious pregnancy, her every move is a front-page story.
"Dati is a flamboyant extrovert. She has tried to mix politics and a celebrity lifestyle. She is at complete odds with the usual norms of French political circles," said Stephane Rozes, director of the Cap political consultancy.
A child of poor North African immigrants and the first person of Arab-origins to head a major ministry, Dati owes her meteoric rise to a once close friendship with Sarkozy.
He chose her to convey a message: he was changing France, making it open and meritocratic at last.
But she has fallen out of favor with Sarkozy and the EU election is a convenient way to get rid of her. He made it clear to her she would have to quit the government after the EU vote.
Simply sacking her would have been hard for Sarkozy after he made her a symbol of progress for Arabs, women and the poor. It would also have reflected badly on him because it was his idea to pluck her from obscurity and hand her the powerful job.
Zealous in implementing Sarkozy's desire to shake up France, Dati launched far-reaching reforms but stands accused of getting too many backs up. From magistrates to prison guards, critics say she is out of her depth, abrasive and unwilling to consult.
They also say she is too frivolous, citing glossy magazine covers displaying the svelte Dati at ritzy receptions in designer dresses, high heels and pricey jewelry.
Serious news magazines also run frequent Dati cover stories, though recently theirs have been less flattering, with headlines like "Fall of an Icon" or "The Extravagant Mrs. Dati."
Like Sarkozy, Dati saw her popularity drop on the perception that she was focusing too much on her celebrity status, but she remains relatively popular with working class voters and people from immigrant backgrounds, Rozes said.
It is ironic, for she has spent her life networking with the rich, famous and powerful as a way out of where she came from.
The public's fascination with Dati peaked last year when it became obvious she was pregnant and she declined to name the father. "My private life is complicated," she said.
A mere five days after giving birth by caesarean in January, Dati rushed back to work, as slim as ever and wearing stilettos. Critics said she had undermined maternity leave rights while supporters said she should be praised for her commitment.
Her zeal did not save her job, for Dati had lost her special link with Sarkozy after he divorced from his wife Cecilia, her close friend. The new Mrs. Sarkozy, model-turned-pop star Carla Bruni, swiftly evicted Dati from the president's inner circle.
Dati has put a brave face on the situation, campaigning with dedication despite an apparently hazy grasp of EU issues.
"Europe takes care of things that it is given to take care of with people who can bring it things to take care of," she said at a recent party event.
It is unlikely that France has heard the last of Dati.