PARIS (Reuters) - French Justice Minister Rachida Dati defended her decision to return to work five days after giving birth to a baby girl in January, in the first interview since her controversially short maternity leave.
Dati, 43, a former star in President Nicolas Sarkozy's cabinet who has fallen from grace, told a French newspaper in the interview released before publication on Sunday that the move had been a personal decision.
"You mustn't believe that I wasn't tired. Of course I was. I'm not 20 any more. Moreover, I'm justice minister, I have my duties," she told Le Journal Du Dimanche. "But, fundamentally, I believe that the most important right of women is freedom."
Dati, a divorcee, has declined to name the father of her daughter.
"Of course I would have dreamed of starting a more conventional family, but life decided otherwise," she was quoted as saying.
The first French minister of North African descent, Dati initially charmed the public with her odds-defying rise to power and her glamorous looks, but a string of gaffes and accusations of bullying by magistrates and staff have tarnished her image.
Dati is due to leave the government to represent the center-right UMP party in European elections in June.
There has been talk that Sarkozy, unhappy with her performance, had considered removing her before, but had opted for the European elections as a more dignified compromise.
"When I came out of maternity leave, I met Nicolas Sarkozy and we talked about my future. He convinced me that political involvement exists in different forms," Dati said, adding that she had long been passionate about European politics.
She defended her political record, pointing to the 30 reforms she pushed through during her two years in the job.
Photos of Dati rushing back to the ministry in a skirt suit and stiletto heels only days after giving birth by caesarean section attracted criticism from women's groups and sparked speculation that she feared being politically sidelined.
But Dati denied that leaving the government was a sign of failure, adding: "My only failure would have been not to have had a child."
Reporting by Sophie Hardach; Editing by Charles Dick