Rachida Dati’s Rise and Fall

French politician Rachida Dati has been in and out of the headlines since taking office as France’s Minister of Justice.  MMW recently covered the hype around Dati’s pregnancy and her decision to return to work only five days after having a caesarian section.  Now, Dati is back in the news as we hear that she is being forced to resign from her cabinet position, and to run for a seat in the European Parliament instead.

I’ll get to that in a minute, but let’s back up first and look at Dati’s background and at the way she has been talked about as Justice Minister.

Rachida Dati. Image via Reuters.

Rachida Dati. Image via Reuters.

Rachida Dati was born and raised in a low-income housing area outside of Lyons.  Her mother was Algerian and her father was from Morocco.  She has an educational background in economics and law and has worked as an auditor and as a judge.  She first began advising Nicolas Sarkozy in 2002, and was appointed as his Justice Minister when Sarkozy was elected President of France in May 2007.  Dati is the first person of North African Muslim heritage to hold such a high-level cabinet position in France.

Dati’s journey from poverty to the highest levels of national government has turned into a fairy tale story.  News articles over the past few months have described it as a “triumph over race and gender, the most daunting barriers in French public life,” “a symbol of ethnic diversity in President Sarkozy’s new administration,” “an emblem for a new France, one that’s both multiethnic and socially liberal,” and “an achiever, capable and determined, and testament to the capabilities and determination of those minorities she represented.”

But there is a darker side to this, in that the expectations placed on Dati have been so high from the beginning that she was almost predestined to fall short.  Early in Dati’s term, President Sarkozy said publicly that “Rachida Dati has an obligation to succeed, because her presence is a message addressed to all the children of France.”  With the expectations of all the children of France riding on her shoulders, Dati was expected to perform flawlessly and held to a much higher standard than most other politicians.  As usual, no one’s asking many questions about why all of these expectations are riding on only one person (or why, as president, Sarkozy isn’t also being held accountable for the fact that there are still so few people of colour represented within his cabinet.)  In this context, the fact that Dati has not always been especially popular with those working with her – who claim that she was unqualified to begin with, that she has pushed through new legislation with little consultation, and that she has caused many people working under her to resign – is seen not only as a result of her own personal failure (as opposed to also a result of pressures from Sarkozy) but also as a betrayal of all of those whose dreams she supposedly carried.

Moreover, Dati’s role is talked about with an air of mystery and exoticism.  One article says that:

Rachida Dati, the most flamboyant smile of the Sarkozy-Fillon government, is the object of a curiosity without limits.  Television media and news magazines have made her into a seductive and mysterious icon.

Another refers to her as “glamorous but troublesome,” and also tells us that Sarkozy has referred to Dati as “my little Arab girl.”  The hype around the undisclosed identity of the father of Dati’s child only adds to the intrigue and fascination directed at her by the media and the French public.  The combination of being a woman and being of Arab origin has placed Dati at the centre of a gossip mill that often has little to do with her performance as Justice Minister.

Not surprisingly, given her gender, Dati’s clothing choices also become prominent topics in news articles.  Nearly every article about her has some reference to her designer shoes, clothes, or jewelry.  And here I was thinking that it was only headscarves that got talked about in terms of Muslim women’s clothing being discussed in the news (*rolling eyes*).

The hype around the recent birth of Dati’s daughter has been seen by many as the last straw in her career as government minister.  An article published in the Times a week ago states that:

Rachida Dati, the glamorous but troublesome politician who returned to work five days after giving birth, has been forced to quit President Sarkozy’s Government.
Ms Dati, 43, has reluctantly agreed to run for the European Parliament in June after falling out of favour with her longstanding mentor. The President made it clear that this would mean leaving the Cabinet, and Ms Dati is expected to resign after she wins a safe seat as an MEP.

Given the immense expectations placed on Rachida Dati, as well as the unusually high level of scrutiny that she has faced, it is perhaps not that unexpected that she is now being shuffled out of her high-profile cabinet position and into the European Parliament.  Her time as Minister of Justice has certainly been rocky and controversial, and it can definitely be argued that she made some really bad political decisions, and was perhaps not even qualified for the job in the first place.

On the other hand, we should probably also be asking some questions about whether this represents only Dati’s personal failure, or whether it also represents the failure of the French government and media to create a space where a woman of colour can do her job without being subject to demands, scrutiny and attacks that many of her colleagues never have to face.

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