If you were to go looking for evidence of France’s huge North African population, you’d find it in the grim public housing projects of the suburban cités, in the gritty peripheral neighborhoods of Paris, and near my home in the relatively privileged 5th arrondissement, where the Great Mosque draws enormous crowds on Fridays and during Ramadan. You would be hard pressed, however, to find many North Africans in the corridors of French business or political power, where they are close to invisible.
And yet, for the last year and a half, a woman of Moroccan-Algerian descent has become famous as one of the most influential and glamorous figures in France. Rachida Dati is the minister of justice, and until recently one of President Sarkozy’s closest confidants. She is a self-made success story who radiates chutzpah, for lack of a better word. She’s also single — and pregnant. As of this writing, the identity of the father is still a secret, and guessing it has become one of the top dinner-party games throughout Europe.
Dati was born in a small town in Burgundy in 1965, the second child of 12. Her father was a mason from Morocco, her mother a French-born Algerian. To please her Muslim parents, Dati wed at age 26, but regretted her decision and had the marriage annulled soon afterward. She studied business and obtained a master’s degree in law.
She has always demonstrated an uncanny talent for meeting the right people. In 2002 she contacted Nicolas Sarkozy, who was then interior minister, offering to advise him on immigration issues. In May 2007, when Sarkozy, now president, named her to the Justice Ministry, she made history as the first North African to hold a top post in the French government. Though Dati refuses to define herself by her ethnicity, emphasizing that she’s French above all, her appointment made her a poster child as the Arab who succeeded in the country’s most elite milieu.
Dati immediately became a star, with her flirtatious dark eyes, her thousand-watt smile, and her penchant for dressing in high fashion. She has often accompanied the president on his travels (including his state banquet at the White House), sparkles at every important high society function, and even posed for a spread in Paris Match magazine wearing a pink, panther-spotted Dior dress and fishnet stockings. Shocked by her easygoing attitude, a Socialist deputy once accused her of “walking into prisons as though she’s climbing the steps of the Cannes Festival.”
As far as her job performance, critics accuse her of being incompetent and indiscriminately pushing through reforms. Her authoritarian manner has led to the resignation of several members of her staff. In the past, she was protected by Sarkozy, but lately he seems to have turned his back, having a hard enough time with his own approval ratings and condemnation of his “bling-bling,” Rolex-watch-and-supermodel-wife lifestyle. This fall, the president voiced exasperation at press photos of Dati looking ultra-chic at a dinner for the Biennale des Antiquaires, the world’s most extravagant antiques fair, when most French people will never aspire to anything fancier than an Ikea couch.
And then there’s the pregnancy. Dati confirmed it to a small group of journalists in early September, explaining that having a child has always been a dream, and that at age 42 she was running out of time. To the question of the father’s identity, “I have a very complicated private life” was all she would reveal. Soon thereafter, a Moroccan website claimed to have irrefutable evidence that the mystery man was José María Aznar, Spain’s former prime minister. It seems Dati and Aznar first met (and hit it off) at a dinner in Paris last December, in the presence of Carla Bruni and Julio Iglesias, among others. Aznar, who is conservative — and very much married — released an official press communiqué refuting the claim that he was dad.
The Belgian, Spanish, and French press have all joined in the guessing game, tossing into the hat the names of millionaire businessmen, a television star, a former rugby coach, a sperm bank, and even President Sarkozy himself. At the same time, the Corriere della Serra newspaper in Italy demonstrated its modern leanings by calling Dati an “example for single mothers,” explaining that “a woman who takes on motherhood alone is no longer seen as a pathetic figure who has to hide,” but as someone who can hold her head high.
In early October, France’s VSD magazine published the results of a national survey conducted for the publication, asking 1,000 people from across the spectrum their opinion of Dati and her pregnancy. Most answered that she is “in step” with French society today, is helping to “advance the general mentality,” and has the right to keep the father’s name her private business. Only 12 percent admitted being very or somewhat shocked by her situation. A director of the institute that conducted the poll, Jean-Daniel Lévy, said “Madame Dati is emblematic of a French person from a modest background who can finally accede to power.”
Though the circumstances are entirely different, some Americans might find an echo in the figure of Sarah Palin. And for the same criteria that McCain used to choose Palin as his running mate — for her symbolic value over her experience — it’s probable that Dati never would have received her ministerial position without being a North African woman, despite her reticence to characterize herself as such, and the obvious fact that she does not practice her religion.
I did my own mini-survey of one sector of society, asking Muslims outside the Paris Mosque what they thought of Dati. A 21-year-old student named Nadia, dressed in a slate-colored, body-camouflaging jilbab dress and headscarf, told me, “I don’t resent her. But she doesn’t represent us. She’s too well integrated.”
In an Arab bookstore across the street, a well-dressed man named Slimane Kemal, born in Algeria, had dropped by to see his friends after Friday prayers. He gave a short laugh when I mentioned Dati’s name. “She doesn’t represent us, like we don’t represent her. She’s detached from reality, our reality. She has to come down from her cloud. She’s in charge of Justice, but nothing’s changed on the street. There’s just as much repression in the suburbs. And here at the mosque, the police still ticket cars every Friday.
He pointed to a beautiful 23-year-old woman in a black headscarf, straightening up a pile of papers on a desk. “Look at Fouzia,” he said. “She’s done her university studies, she’s as bright as anyone, but nobody in this country will give her a job commensurate with her skills because she wears a headscarf. I’d like to see Dati appoint an assistant who wears a headscarf.”
Fouzia, who is of Algerian origin but was born in France, smiled. “I don’t really follow politics,” she said quietly. “But no, Dati doesn’t interest me. She’s just a symbol, and there’s nothing underneath.”
Rachida Dati is a symbol, then, not diversity but of assimilation — which is, admittedly, France’s stated goal for its immigrant community. She is ultimately closer to Saint-Germain than the suburbs, both superficially, in her choice of clothing and lifestyle, and on a deeper level, in the way she conducts herself as a woman and government minister.
Word is that Dati is expecting a girl, sometime in January. What’s certain is that if her daughter does wear a scarf it will be by Hermès — tied around her neck, and not over her head. • 23 October 2008