A Complicated Private Life Begets a Public Debate

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 17, 2009


Rachida Dati, France's glamorous and often controversial justice minister, seems to have nine lives -- and she has lived them all on Page One.

In her latest incarnation, at the age of 43, Dati has been cast by the French media in the role of superwoman. This after she showed up elegantly dressed in black at a government meeting five days after giving birth Jan. 2 to a daughter named Zohra. President Nicolas Sarkozy, who presided over the meeting, paused to congratulate his protege, whom he described gallantly as "the young mama" but otherwise made no public reference to her exploit.

That was left to a parade of pediatric experts, women's rights commentators and politicians for and against who have been sounding off in the media ever since. Some hailed her energy and dedication; others denounced her as an irresponsible mother and a bad example for French women.

"Should women prove that giving birth to a child does not prevent working and that a birth in the end is nothing more than another meeting on the schedule?" asked Sandrine Blanchard in Le Monde newspaper.

"For Madame Dati, everything seems to have been programmed down to the last detail," observed Blanchard, a frequent essayist on health issues. "The choice of La Muette Clinic, an up-market establishment in the 16th arrondissement, is not surprising. In this clinic, 43 percent of births are done by cesarean section, a record in France. Little Zohra was born Jan. 2 by cesarean section, a date that allowed her mama to change nothing in her minister's agenda."

Despite the talk, nobody noted out loud what the photographs all showed: Always glamorous, the raven-haired Dati glowed as she marched firmly into the Elysee Palace under the strobe lights' glare. Moreover, nobody had the indiscretion to bring up the question of the father, whose identity the unmarried Dati has declined to reveal.

Not that people weren't wondering. Celebrity magazines have been speculating ever since Dati's sleek wardrobe began to bulge last fall. At one point, José María Aznar, the former Spanish prime minister, felt obliged to issue a communique denying reports that he was the one. Parisians at dinner parties have been murmuring about her trips to Qatar, suggesting a certain businessman there.

The closest Dati herself has come to talking in public about it was when she told reporters, "I have a complicated private life."

In the end, the sharpest comment on Dati's swift return to work came from Ségolène Royal, the Socialist presidential candidate whom Sarkozy defeated in May 2007. The president, she said, was guilty of violating the law against "moral harassment" in the workplace because his "brutal, provocative and humiliating" attitude had prompted Dati to believe she would suffer professionally if she took time off to care for Zohra.

"Leave Rachida alone," pleaded Royal, who as family minister in the 1990s made a point of carrying on with business after she had her fourth child. But Royal could not resist her own little dig, suggesting that the father, whoever he may be, should take advantage of the paternal family leave instituted under her authority.

Bernadette Chirac, wife of former president Jacques Chirac, stepped into the debate as well by revealing that Dati was breast-feeding Zohra despite her busy schedule. But after dropping that pearl, she called on reporters to stop asking about such things, saying some women are tired after giving birth.

"Let's leave Rachida alone a little," Chirac said. "She just had a baby, and it's her private life." She continued: "I telephoned her this afternoon. Rachida is my friend. She is a happy woman. This little baby brings her a lot of happiness."

There seemed to be little chance of reporters leaving Dati alone, however, since she has been a subject of great public interest since Sarkozy named her as France's first justice minister of North African origin. The justice minister, called guardian of the seals in deference to a historical role, has traditionally been among the most coveted posts in the government, a "regal" job in the political jargon here, with power and pomp. And there was Dati, a single, elegant woman whose parents came from Algeria, showing up for work in designer pantsuits and going out at night dripping with big-name jewelry on loan from the swankiest shops.

But then came more notoriety. Such as the time she suggested it was a good idea to throw 12-year-old delinquents into prison with hardened criminals. Or when she declared it was normal for an editor to be handcuffed and strip-searched over a libel case.

The culmination, it seemed, was when it became known that the pro-Sarkozy Le Figaro newspaper had airbrushed an expensive ring from her hand before publishing a photo, fearful that such luxury in a time of economic crisis might encourage Dati's enemies to portray her as an insensitive arriviste.

Sarkozy, his aides confided to reporters, was by then becoming irritated at the gaffes. Dati, they suggested, was picked as a symbol of commitment to diversity but would not be long in the government unless she mended her ways.

To many people's surprise, however, Dati turned up on the guest list for Sarkozy's intimate Christmas Eve dinner. Then came the baby. And when the president carried out a partial ministerial reshuffle Thursday, Dati was still at the Justice Ministry, just across from the Ritz in the tony Place Vendome.

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