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French Justice Appointment Shakes Establishment


Rachida Dati is the first person of North African origin to hold a top French government post. Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Unidentified Man #1: (French spoken)


BEARDSLEY: Unidentified Woman #1: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Unidentified Man #2: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Dati's success hasn't surprised those who know her. Dati is the oldest of 12 children and the premature death of her mother forced her to look after her younger siblings. Working by day, learning by night, she earned degrees in economics and law. Dati then studied at the prestigious National College of Magistrates and began knocking on political doors. One of those doors was Nicolas Sarkozy's, says political commentator Nicole Bacharan.

NICOLE BACHARAN: Very early she decided she wanted to work with Nicolas Sarkozy. She obviously identified, you know, with his vision, his energy, and she wrote to him and was very insistent until she met him and eventually he hired her.

BEARDSLEY: All of France discovered Dati over the past months as she defended and promoted her candidate's often controversial ideas on the talk-show circuit.



BEARDSLEY: She became a sort of star minority symbol of the Sarkozy campaign. Her mere presence disarmed attackers who would accuse the candidate of being anti-immigrant or racist. Commentator Bacharan says Sarkozy has confounded his critics again by appointing Dati justice minister.

BACHARAN: Putting a woman from North African origin to such a position, it's about all the values and roles that he tries to promote. It's all about hard work, merit, playing by the rules; that's exactly what the left and the socialists should have done, could have done, and did not do.

BEARDSLEY: Like her new boss, Dati plans to shake things up. She spent her first night on the job in a prison. She will have to push though unpopular measures, like tougher penalties for juvenile offenders. At her swearing in, Dati said she wanted to make French people feel part of their system.

RACHIDA DATI: (Through translator) I will be a justice minister who will give French people confidence in their justice system, and I will make them an integral part of my mission.


BEARDSLEY: Forty-two-year-old Hamama Wabdakader(ph), an Algerian immigrant living in France, watches Dati swearing in on TV and says as an Algerian, she is honored. Still, it's not enough to make her change her mind about Sarkozy.

HAMAMA WABDAKADEA: (Through translator) But on the other hand, we still wonder what is behind it all. Considering the way Sarkozy doesn't like Arabs, we just can't trust him completely.

BEARDSLEY: For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.