France's Justice Minister Rachida Dati
In a rare departure from her habitual reserve,
Rachida Dati, the former justice minister
and France's most famous mother,
has spoken of the hurt she feels at
the constant guessing game
about the paternity of her baby.
"It can be humiliating," she said, referring
to speculation about what is often described
as closely a guarded secret
as the French nuclear codes.
"It is also hurtful to people around me."
Mayor of an affluent Parisian district and
a Euro MP in President Nicolas
Sarkozy's centre-right party, Dati defended
her return to work only five days after
giving birth to daughter Zohra
in January: it had provoked outrage
from feminists who regarded France's first
north African minister as
a traitor to their cause.
"Being a minister is not like being
a check-out girl or some other worker,"
she said in her first interview with
a foreign journalist since having her baby.
"In any case, I think that the most
elemental woman's right is
the right to choose."
A petite figure in her distinctive black suit,
Dati, 43, seemed to have lost none
of her verve and pugnacity as
she fielded questions in between
glances at a constantly buzzing BlackBerry
and a television screen in her
mayor's ornate office in
the seventh arrondissement of Paris.
She mocked the fuss that was made
in the press of her allegedly high-handed
behaviour as justice minister and
her steadfast refusal to reveal
the identity of her child's father.
Anything she did seemed
to cause controversy, she claimed,
with a smile.
"I was pregnant, it started a controversy,"
she laughed. "People didn't know about
my private life — controversy.
I was carrying out reforms [as justice minister],
I wore high heels and was
well dressed, controversy there too."
Once an emblem of the diversity
in Sarkozy's "rainbow government",
Dati, daughter of an Algerian cleaner
and a Moroccan bricklayer, denied that
she had been lukewarm about
her European parliament job after
being dismissed from the government in June.
What might have seemed like painful
exile away from the media limelight
in Paris was, in fact, a welcome
"breathing space" after a tempestuous
period in which she had had
to implement unpopular judicial
reforms on behalf of Sarkozy,
who had promised "rupture"
with the bad old ways of the past.
"They were hard reforms to implement,
I implemented them very quickly," she said,
referring to a dramatic upheaval
of the French legal map which involved
the axeing of several courts
with the loss of numerous jobs.
"Afterwards I had the image of being
very hard, authoritarian.
I am not authoritarian, though.
I am demanding."
Once she was the favourite of
the "Sarkozettes", as the female ministers
are sometimes known, but it did not stop
the president from sacking her when
he grew tired of the media focus
on her designer wardrobe
and love life. Nor did he change
his mind when she asked
if he would be the child's godfather.
Ever the loyal lieutenant, she defended him
last week against charges of nepotism
in the furious row over thwarted plans
to appoint Jean, his 23-year-old son,
to head the agency that runs La Défense,
the cluster of towers on the Paris skyline
that is one of the biggest business
districts in Europe.
"Jean had wisdom to retire," she said,
referring to the second-year law
student's decision to withdraw as a candidate.
"He did not want to harm the government."
Nor does Dati. She dreams of returning
to the cabinet one day,
or of running for mayor of Paris in 2014.
"It's very far off," she said of the race
in a capital governed by Socialists.
"But the essential thing is that
the presidential majority takes
back Paris. We must start
to get organised."
Often accused of chasing publicity,
Dati said it was the other way round
and that she was constant prey
to paparazzi photographers who pursued
her like a Hollywood celebrity
wherever she went, including to
a beach in Morocco where she was
recently photographed playing
with Zohra and walking her in a pushchair.
"It can be annoying, but you have
to live with it," she said. "I cover
a lot of spectrums," she added,
explaining her fascination for the media.
"As a woman. As a mother.
As a deputy. As a mayor.
As a politician. As many things.
On account of my origins. My background."
One of 12 siblings, she grew up
on an impoverished housing estate
in deepest Burgundy and
her meteoric rise to the summit
of French politics was hailed
by Sarkozy as a sign "to all the children
of France that with merit and effort
everything becomes possible".
He also proclaimed that because
of that he could not "allow her to fail".
Her downfall, nevertheless, was just
as swift as her elevation,
after protests by judges
and court clerks about her reforms
and criticism of her high-spending ways.
One of the biggest fusses of her tenure
concerned her penchant for posing
in glossy magazines clad in Dior dresses
borrowed from the designer.
There was another controversy
when a designer had to threaten
a lawsuit to get back one of the garments.
She strongly denied, however,
that she had mistreated any members
of her staff, as had been alleged after
the resignations of several
of her ministerial lieutenants.
"I do not mistreat people," she said firmly.
Although she is no longer in the cabinet,
the French fascination for Dati
seems only to grow, and books about
her political adventure with Sarkozy
and her complicated family arrangements
have flown off the shelves.
The identity of Zohra's father is a subject
of such intense speculation
that various international statesmen,
politicians and celebrities
from Jose Maria Aznar,
the former prime minister of Spain,
to Ali Bin Fetais al-Marri,
the attorney-general of Qatar,
have felt obliged to deny that
they are the father. Bernard Laporte,
the jovial former sports minister
and coach of the national rugby team,
also issued a denial.
Pressed on this question last week,
Dati's dark eyes flashed with
sudden annoyance and
her voice cracked like a whip.
"Nobody knows anything
about my private life," she scowled.
"And I'm not going to start
talking about it today."
On the joys of parenthood, by contrast,
she lit up, describing the birth
of her child as "the best thing in my life".
She said that she did not know
whether she would have another baby.
"I have more of a time limit than if
I were 20," she said. "It is the best thing
that can happen. It gives you
another definition of life.
I have less obsessions. And I'm much more
attentive to health these days.
Because I say to myself I have a baby."
She went on: "I have friends who never
wanted to have children. I don't judge them.
But I always said, even when I didn't
have children, that I thought my life would
be a failure if I didn't have any."
She sometimes sends a text
to order the baby to be brought
from the nursery down the road
into her office. "I hold her on my lap
while I'm working," she said. "Sometimes
when I haven't seen her, it annoys me.
I have to see her."
She claimed not to have read
a book by her brother, Jamal, the black sheep
of the Datis who accused her
of freezing all contact with him
after becoming a minister because
of his drugs conviction.
He also claimed that the bundle
she held, to the delight of photographers,
when leaving the hospital, was,
in fact, empty and that her baby had
been taken away earlier
to avoid being jostled by journalists.
Dati called it "scandalous" that a journalist
had sought out the one member
of her family who "is doing less well.
They haven't done that with
any other female politician".
Her BlackBerry buzzed again and
she giggled after consulting
a text message: a friend, she explained,
was ordering her to wear a dinner jacket
at an event they were attending that evening.
She is also looking forward to getting
to know Britain, and is enthusiastic about
an invitation to join Jack Straw,
the justice minister, at an event
in his Blackburn constituency.
"He's invited me to his constituency
because there are subjects linked
to integration, to populations of foreign origin,"
she said. "We're in the process of organising it."
Outside her office a wedding party
has gathered. "Marrying people, that's one
of her favourite jobs as mayor,"
said an aide. "Everyone wants
to be married by Madame Dati."
First openly gay minister for Germany
The German chancellor Angela Merkel
yesterday announced that Guido Westerwelle, 47,
the leader of the Free Democrats, would
become foreign minister, the first openly
gay politician to hold the post,
in her new coalition government.
The wheelchair-bound interior minister,
Wolfgang Schäuble, 67, will become
finance minister; Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, 37,
takes over the defence portfolio.
Philipp Rösler, 36, who is of
Vietnamese descent, becomes
the youngest member
of the cabinet as health minister.