A tarnished figure, France's Dati faces EU exile

Thu Jun 4, 2009 5:30am EDT
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By Estelle Shirbon

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.   Continued...