dimanche 11 janvier 2009
If you think France's most famous single mother, the justice minister Rachida Dati, had a choice when she returned to work just five days after delivering her daughter Zohra by caesarean section, think again.
Pictures of the radiant mother in the Elysée forecourt, coiffed, made-up and manicured, in a severe but figure-hugging size eight black Yves Saint Laurent outfit and four inch heels, stirred debate across France.
Was the 43-year-old minister striking a blow for women's liberation or setting it back 40 years?
Could such a superwoman carry the standard for millions of working mothers, or was she shaming them into giving up hard-won advances, such as paid maternity leave and part-time employment?
Amid the clamour of competing opinions one important point can be easily overlooked: Miss Dati went back to work not from a position of strength but from a position of weakness. She feared losing her job if she decided to stay at home with her baby.
The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is planning a government reshuffle next week, is a notoriously impatient boss and his justice minister's competence has been called into question.
The purpose of her stage-managed picture opportunity was to ensure that nobody could possibly have thought of her as an unfit, over-the-hill mother left pregnant by a commitment-shy (and possibly adulterous) casual boyfriend.
In French politics, weakness is the cardinal mistake; image matters above everything. And women make it by being four times tougher than everybody else.
Miss Dati, was a highly-praised adviser to Mr Sarkozy, when he was interior minister. She was also an efficient presidential campaign spokesman for him 18 months ago when he won the highest office in the land.
However, no one could pretend she has been a successful justice minister. Given the task of making sweeping reforms to get more efficiency from France's creaking judicial bureaucracy, she antagonised magistrates' and prison wardens' unions – not least when they saw her modelling a Dior chiffon dress on the cover of Paris-Match the same week that she called for more budget cuts.
She has gone through more chiefs of staff at her ministry (conveniently located next to the Ritz on Place Vendôme) than Diana, the Princess of Wales, did at Kensington Palace.
Like almost every powerful woman in high office, she is said to be mercurial and bad-tempered, a charge rarely levelled against her equally Napoleonic male counterparts in France's political elite.
All the same, few ministers would have hauled a provincial judge out of bed after midnight to explain why a young thief had been sent to prison, where he subsequently committed suicide, prompting angry headlines.
Miss Dati had no such reluctance.
And fewer ministers, perhaps, would have chosen a tête-à-tête breakfast with Prince Albert of Monaco over a long-scheduled meeting with representatives from the prison wardens' unions, an incident said to have enraged Mr Sarkozy.
Significantly, he took it upon himself to announce yet another major, and potentially unpopular, reform of the justice system last week rather than waiting for his minister to return to work.
Any other minister would have been a foregone casualty in the projected cabinet reshuffle. Once an intimate of the Sarkozy couple – she and Mr Sarkozy's previous wife Cecilia called one another "sister" – Miss Dati has fallen from grace at the Elysée. She is a bête noire of the new Madame Sarkozy, Carla Bruni.
More significantly, she is not included in the Group of Seven, the seven ministers most appreciated by the president, who gather informally with him to plan the government's next moves.
However, it should be said that neither is the prime minister, François Fillon, who is nevertheless expected to keep his job next week.
For months, Miss Dati's job was saved by who she was: the primary face of Mr Sarkozy's rainbow coalition, the first Muslim in charge of a major cabinet post.
If not quite the most popular politician in the country, she is certainly the one whose face sells the most newspapers and magazine covers.
Young people like her. Women like her. Minorities like her. The Left pulls its punches when it comes to her.
Even her well-publicised spat with Mr Sarkozy's other high-profile cabinet minority appointment, the popular Senegal-born human rights secretary, Rama Yade, has failed to make a dent in her reputation. Her rival is in hot water with Mr Sarkozy, having refused to lead the Gaullist list in the European elections, prompting the president to call her a "spoiled brat".
But all this is predicated on one essential quality: Miss Dati must at all costs look like a winner. Let her stumble but once, and the thumbs will turn down in seconds. French politics is like a gladiator's arena: woe to the vanquished.
Her pregnancy could have finished her, and she knew it.
Hence the cameras outside the maternity clinic (positively restrained, the minister's friends will tell you, compared with the former Socialist presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, who held a photocall in the room where she had given birth to her daughter). Hence the YSL outfits and the make-up artist; hence the coy speculation, sometimes fuelled by the minister herself, about the identity of the baby's father.
The candidates include a Spanish politician, two chief executives of France's largest companies, a cabinet colleague, a television presenter and the president's brother.
Far from being a social reject, Miss Dati revelled in the celebrity spotlight. Mr Sarkozy saw his ratings plummet when he was tagged the "bling-bling president". But Miss Dati correctly assessed that making headlines, any kind of headlines, was better than fading into the background. Every newspaper article on her motherly qualities (or lack thereof), her feminism (or crass destruction of such) puts her firmly at the centre of attention.
Would you fire a woman triumphantly embodying the 21st century's contradictions?