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Dati Becomes First Muslim to Hold Key Position in France's Cabinet


President Nicolas Sarkozy put a fresh face on the French government when he appointed his new cabinet a couple of weeks ago. The 15-person cabinet includes seven women and, for the first, a person of North African origin in what is considered a key position. Rachida Dati, the new justice minister, grew up in a mostly-immigrant public housing project near the French city of Lyon. For VOA News, Anita Elash looks at her remarkable career.

Up until a few months ago, most people in France had never heard of Rachida Dati. Then, presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy made her his campaign spokeswoman. And Dati, whose parents came from Morocco and Algeria, took on the job of defending policies that many people consider anti-immigrant and racist.

They include Sarkozy's controversial proposal for a ministry of immigration and national identity, and a suggestion that immigrants should learn to speak French and sign a contract agreeing to conform to French values. During a March talk show on Beur FM, a Paris radio station aimed at the Magreb community, Dati told callers that Sarkozy does not want to stop immigration and was just trying to help people integrate.

"There are some basic principles and values that people have to understand that we have to remind them of when they arrive," she said. "That's what makes up national identity."

Two weeks ago, Sarkozy made 41-year-old Dati his justice minister. She is the first person of North African origin to hold such high office in France. If her appointment is out of the ordinary, so is the path she has taken to get there.

Dati is the second of 12 children in a traditional Muslim family. When her mother died at a young age, Dati was left to look after her siblings. She put herself through college, and then, at 21, set out to join the French elite.

Albin Chalandon was France's justice minister when Dati approached him at an Algerian embassy party and asked for help.

"This was someone with a lot of courage, she was very determined and direct, and she knew what she wanted, which was to get out of the slums," he said. "So I thought I would really like to help someone like that who was in such a difficult situation."

Chalandon got Dati a job as an accountant at the oil giant ELF-Acquitaine where he had been director. After that, her career took off. She later became a judge, joined prestigious clubs in Paris, and put most of her siblings through school. Five years ago, she persuaded Sarkozy to hire her as an advisor. Now she is in charge of implementing some of the policies they worked on together.

Some of her first efforts may have the greatest impact in places like this. St. Denis is one of the more troubled suburbs surrounding Paris. Most of the residents here are minorities and immigrants. The crime rate is high and so is unemployment, especially among young people. And residents say Sarkozy's law and order policies when he was interior minister had a negative impact on the relationship between young people and the police.

This week Dati proposed measures to impose minimum sentences for young offenders and reduce the age at which teenagers can be tried as adults.

Given all that, young people here take little comfort in the fact that someone of North African origin has finally made it to the top.

One man, whose parents are from Ivory Coast, says Dati has forgotten where she came from. He says he appreciates that Dati has worked hard to get ahead. But he considers Sarkozy racist, and he says Dati is a traitor for joining his government.

Another man of Algerian descent says Dati is a stranger to most North Africans in France. He thinks she was hired so when the government gets tough, people can say, "she's just like you, there's no injustice here."

Some analysts say they'll be watching closely to see how Dati performs. Nadir Djennad is a political journalist for Beur FM. He says Dati was appointed partly to mollify the Magreb community. He says now she must prove she's more than just a token minority in a white government.

He says "hats off" to Dati, but the hardest part is to come. He says he does not believe that her presence in the government will bring concrete change for immigrants. But he says she might be able to inspire young people of North African origin to go into politics and to succeed.