Letter From Paris

Girl Trouble

In French politics, one never knows what to expect -- or who is expecting.

By From the April 2009 issue

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First of all, let's get one thing straight: I am not the father of Rachida Dati's new baby. Admittedly that disclaimer might be superfluous, because of all the many names mentioned since the birth of Zohra, mine is not yet among them. Still, it's best to get this on the record for reasons that will become clear.

Miss Dati is one of the several women that President Nicolas Sarkozy, to please feminists and bring a whiff of modernity to hidebound French government, picked for his cabinet after his 2007 election. With women newly holding cabinet positions from the interior to finance to justice, and on through housing, health, culture, and education, Sarkozy has prided himself on bringing more women into high government office than any previous French leader. The political correctness squad gave him double points for two new faces in particular: Rama Yade, the Senegal-born state secretary for human rights, and Rachida Dati, of North African immigrant origin, as minister of justice.

But Sarkozy, for all his nervous energy and laudable attempts to instill a new governing style, is very much in the traditional French mold when it comes to women: he dotes and depends on them. Like French leaders from 15th-century Charles VII on down to François Mitterrand, he gladly submits to their influence. (He was especially dependent on his second wife, Cécilia, for moral support and counsel, vowing publicly, "She is part of me.") And like many of his predecessors, Sarkozy now is paying the political price of a spot of girl trouble.

When Cécilia abruptly left him only months after his election, he speedily courted and married Carla Bruni, model and pop singer, on the rebound. Whether it's an excess of testosterone, as one biographer argues, or outsized emotional need, he likes to have plenty of the opposite sex around. The little harem Sarkozy formed in his cabinet immediately became known to irreverent observers as the Sarko Babes. But he didn't reckon with the inconvenience, in the serious business of government, of those delightful feminine qualities so celebrated in French boulevard farce: caprice, vanity, and jealousy.

Rama Yade, a duskily attractive 32-year-old, is the youngest of the Babes and the only black cabinet member. Initially touted by Sarkozy as France's Condoleezza Rice, Yade became his poster child for ethnic diversity. But her inexperience, lack of tact, and newly discovered political ambition soon made her a loose cannon. When the Libyan weirdo Muammar Qaddafi made a state visit to Paris, she embarrassed Sarkozy by trumpeting that France should not be a doormat where Qaddafi could "wipe the blood of his crimes from his feet." And when Barack Obama was elected she regretted publicly that, unlike the U.S., France's political parties were prejudiced against its ethnic minorities. True perhaps, but as the French wisely say, not all truths are good to be spoken—especially if you're a cabinet minister.

The last straw for Sarkozy came when he asked Yade recently to run for the insignificant European Parliament in next June's elections as part of his UMP party. "Non," came her blunt reply. That would be "like a forced marriage," when what she really wanted was an important political career in France. Sarkozy was vocally disappointed by what he felt was his young protégée's betrayal. Her planned promotion to minister of European affairs is now dropped.

"I've zapped Rama," he reportedly told other cabinet members. "She's totally finished." Today the French government's token black is in political limbo and Sarkozy's judgment has taken a hit.

Yade had already been snubbed by a carom shot from another Sarko Babe. When Sarkozy made his official visit to China in November 2007, she expected to go along to treat the vexed question of human rights with Chinese officials, a subject on which France claims to hold strong views. When she was pointedly excluded from the delegation, Paris insiders were quick to conclude she was nixed by her pushy sister in government—and rival for Sarkozy's attention—Rachida Dati.

DATI'S RELATIONSHIP WITH SARKOZY has had French tongues wagging for years, and not only because he appointed her to head his justice department despite her lack of any visible qualifications. One of 12 children of poor Moroccan- Algerian parents, she had a hardscrabble childhood in tough public-housing projects. After managing to attend magistrates' school and serving a brief stint as a junior magistrate, she began bombarding Sarkozy with letters when he was interior minister under Jacques Chirac. He finally agreed to meet, and liked her well enough to give her a minor job in the ministry. During his presidential campaign he made her a press attaché. When Sarkozy and Cécilia vacationed in Vermont in the summer of 2007, Dati, for reasons no one but they understood, went along.

Cécilia left Sarkozy but Dati stayed. A striking, headstrong, 43-year-old brunette with a thousand-watt smile, she was on his arm during a White House dinner, accompanied him to a World Cup rugby match, was his partner at a state banquet in Morocco. He affectionately called her "ma beurette," friendly slang for "my little North African girl." Thanks to her looks and nouveau riche taste for ostentatious luxury—designer pantsuits at the office, glossy magazine covers in expensive dresses, fishnet stockings and spike-heeled boots, spectacular gems on loan from top Paris jewelers in the evening—the celebrity press couldn't get enough of her. For a while she was the brightest star in the French political firmament, and it went to her head. On November 5 she imperiously ordered Sarkozy's minions to give her Obama's cell phone number, as if she were on a presidential level.

But Sarkozy altered his style. After months of public backlash against his flashy ways, he dropped the ostentatious sunglasses, the chunky wristwatches, the parties on friends' yachts. Dati's fondness for the likes of Dior, Prada, and Vuitton clashed with the sober new tone at the Elysée Palace. A newspaper tried to help by airbrushing off her finger an imposing Chaumet ring worth an estimated $20,000; that backfired when the ruse became known. And Carla was not Dati's friend. She let it be known that while showing Dati around the official residence, they paused at the presidential bed. "You would have liked to be in there, wouldn't you?" Carla teased, not altogether affectionately.

On cue, government sources began leaking exasperation over her using plush executive jets for her frequent trips abroad—and insisting that the French ambassador be on hand to welcome her at all hours. Justice ministry insiders criticized her for needlessly alienating lawyers and judges by forcing through judicial reforms without the customary dialogue, and swearing at assistants during temper tantrums. (In her first 18 months as minister, more than 20 top aides left in protest.) Trying to downplay his embarrassingly glam minister, Sarkozy told his press service to "de-celebritize" Dati. But she had one third-act feminine ploy left: pregnancy.

AFTER SHE ANNOUNCED PROUDLY last year that she was expecting, but would not name the father because her private life was "complicated," every salon and dinner table in Paris echoed with the question, qui est le père? The celebrity press had a new angle as photographers chronicled her swelling form, which she did nothing to conceal. She teased reporters with lines like "the papa travels a lot," and "I've invited him to dinner." Even as little Zohra was born January 2, names flew: Was her daddy a well-known high executive at Gucci? The French sports minister? A certain former Spanish prime minister (denied as "totally and completely false")? François Sarkozy, the president's taller, younger brother who visited her in the maternity clinic ("I'm the wrong horse")? Or had she resorted to anonymous artificial insemination?

Hélas, we may never know, the only certitude being, trust me, that it is not your faithful correspondent. But Sarkozy, finally fed up with the Dati Show, called her on the carpet in late January. She could either leave the government empty-handed or leave for the European Parliament, and this time he wouldn't take non for an answer. As she prepares to head reluctantly to that graveyard of political ambitions that is the phony parliament in Strasbourg, she leaves Sarkozy a sadder, wiser man.

Still, he can rely on the ultimate Sarko Babe, Carla, to help wipe the egg off his face after the humiliating failure of his diversity gadget. It must be some comfort that his much younger wife vows she has given up her man-eating ways that reportedly included a string of boyfriends from Mick Jagger to Donald Trump. "I no longer seduce because I love my husband," she purred to a magazine recently. "We don't say much, we kiss."

To help keep those home fires burning, Sarkozy has a new feminine recruit named Julie. This 26- year-old personal trainer specializes in shaping up the pelvic floor, i.e., the perineum. Besides helping him lose weight and overcome his chocolate addiction, the technique is claimed to improve other important aspects of her client's life. "Sexual relations are better if the male perineum is in good shape," explains the knowing Julie. One can only speculate what beneficial effect this may have on France's steroidal president, and wish him many happy returns.  

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.