At Large

Class Act

French Justice Minister Rachida Dati does Sarah Palin one better, in more ways than one.

By 9.23.08

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What if the liberals put an unmarried woman on the top of the ticket and then she announced she was pregnant and did not want to talk about it? Do you think they would talk about it? Do you think they would talk about it with the cruel and vicious venom with which they talk (if talk is the word) about Governor Palin and her family?

To the degree you define your deepest values by the way you look at women, or even if you are merely concerned with the "woman question" as a policy issue, you have to find Rachida Dati, France's Minister of Justice, interesting.

The Justice portfolio was previously held by men with names like Duport-Dutertre, Danton (the same), Courvoisier (the liqueur family), Bosque de Beaumont, Mitterrand (who else), Debre, Joxe, Badinter, and so on, names that you will likely find in the rolls of the top schools, the most expensive clubs, and the telephone listings of Paris's best neighborhoods. There have been scores, hundreds, of Justice Ministers in the several French Republics, including in recent years some of the gentler sex, and none of them until last year grew up in what we would call a project, one of 11 children of immigrant parents from North Africa.

None of them have been single mothers who tell reporters to get lost when they ask her who be the he.

RACHIDA DATI FINDS HERSELF in a paradoxical position, a very high ranking member of a conservative government that is trying to lead a historically and culturally rich nation out of quicksands of its own making and that are, to a degree, the reason Miss Dati is who she is. The same quicksands function in all modern advanced societies, including our own. They are due to the difficulties inherent in managing one of the most characteristic trends in liberal democracies, the trend toward equality. Equality leads to inclusiveness, which at the simplest level means the extension of the franchise and at the more complex levels takes us into all the difficulties of integration -- bringing individuals originally left out of running things (not just government but the economy and the culture generally) into the club.

Modern societies passed anti-discrimination laws and promptly turned them into positive discrimination rules. These rules, which in the U.S. we call affirmative action, are not in principle objectionable if we start from the premise that democracy should tend toward equality. In practice they have created problems of variable intensity in every society that has tried to apply them.

Miss Dati represents the famous French meritocratic egalite that her boss, President Nicolas Sarkozy, himself the child of immigrants, promotes. To the Sarkozists, real equality, based on competitive conditions and opportunity, is sorely needed to revitalize economic life in a country softened by welfare-statism. Because it slows mobility and innovation, the welfare state, paradoxically, reinforces class privileges.

The Minister bristles at references to her as a "Muslim woman"; quite consistently with her own parcours (career), she insists she is a French woman, and a lawyer, and a public figure intent on restoring to their full meaning the values of the Republic, which erect a firewall between church and state that makes ours look like a screen door.

She not only does not want, for public purposes, to be identified as a Muslim, she is not a practicing Muslim. The reference to her religion and gender hints, fairly or not, that she owes to her success at least in part to them -- a nod toward France's multicultural quicksand. Nicolas Sarkozy, as Interior Minister in the Chirac government, created institutions that would formalize Islam's relation to the Republic. Intended as a way to undercut radicals who argue that Muslims should consider themselves a state within the French state, Sarkozy's measures gave Islam privileges that could not but lead to suspicions that Muslims are judged as Muslims rather than on the basis of their individual CVs, and it is not impossible that a plan designed to promote assimilation will end up doing just the opposite, reinforce group-think among French Muslims. The corollary is that people without bias are forced to think, How did he get here and what does he really feel about the Republic? Or: Should I hire this one in order not to be accused of prejudice? In Miss Dati's case this has led some conservatives to criticize her perhaps to excess precisely in order to show she is not being held to lower standards.

"Community politics" is exactly what the "values of the Republic" reject. At the same time, Sarkozy encourages religion. What worries him is the decline of Catholic practice in France. Himself Catholic, he is well aware of arguments suggesting that Islam is mining his country (and Europe) from within.

NOW INJECT INTO THIS politically and socially complex environment a woman who wants to be a mother and says so and at the same time rejects all outside interest in what she calls her "complicated personal life."

Rachida Dati, who worked for Sarkozy before he was elected president and is clearly one of the favorites among his ministers, knows that Muslims, even those (some ten million) who benefit hugely from living in a free society like France, are not well-inclined toward single motherhood. Even in ordinary circumstances they are not known for kindness toward women. Fadela Amara, another of Sarkozy's favorites, who occupies a sub-ministerial position responsible for urban problems (in practice this means zones of immigrant concentration), several years ago created an organization called Ni putes ni soumises ("Neither whores nor slaves") to protest against the way Muslim men -- I am generalizing, of course, and know of many exceptions -- regard women.

People change, but Muslim boys from Africa in France change less, or less quickly, than girls. This is not a glib impression, but the consensus among many studies that have tracked school performance, career success, and other indications of integration. Women like Amara and Dati evoke plenty of admiration in the neighborhoods whence they come, but also, without question, a good deal of resentment, even hatred. Boys and young men who prohibit their sisters from attending gym class and watch their mothers (and fathers) slave away so they can be kept in the latest duds playing with the latest gadgets know viscerally that these women are role models for said sisters. The whole business threatens to undercut the practices that may (though I think, frankly, may not) have had some justification in the village but certainly are dysfunctional in 21st century France.

One can see why this makes the French, and not just the Muslim men among them, uneasy. There has been a running debate for 20 years between espousers of the values of the Republic and proponents of community-politics. There is, however, a certain unspoken consensus at the top, cutting across left and right, that would prefer not to deal with the questions raised by this debate, because basically it leaves the traditional elites in charge, regardless of what they say. What this government is saying is that demography will not let us take the easy way out. We must decide what sort of society we are and what are the terms for being part of it.

COMPLICATING MATTERS is Sarkozy's "vulgarity," his "arrivisme," which offends the better sorts and substitutes dislike of the man for serious debate.

Sarkozy himself takes a kind of in-your-face pleasure in acting like a slob, openly text-messaging during an audience with Pope Benedict and saying out loud that one term in the presidency is enough because the money's elsewhere. You almost want to think he is practicing a perverse humor by way of showing the French they take themselves too seriously. At the same time, he has laid out a reform program as ambitious as anything since de Gaulle's time, and there is an element of self-inflicted wounding (somewhat like Nixon) that gets in the way of assessing the president's aims on their own merits.

Like her boss, Rachida Dati appears to carry into public life the attitude of "Our turn, you SOB's, and we'll remember who crosses us." Or more simply, she, like him, has an attitude.

This sort of combativeness, like her loyalty, is understandable. But one readily recognizes the risks of her situation. She wants to live one of these complicated elite French lives (as does the president), but at the same time she wants to shake up these complicated French elites and the contradictions that have led France into a complicated multicultural mess from which they must extract themselves.

Rachida Dati is, no doubt, perfectly right to say that motherhood is good. And she is quite within her rights to say that in this case fatherhood is no one's business other than -- maybe -- a certain Monsieur Mystere. Though she reacts with a brutal temper to the slightest hint of condescension even when it is really closer to ordinary courtesy, she allowed her entourage to let the press know that at 42 she felt she was running out of time and there were unspecified hints of tragic accidents in the family way in the past.

She knows single motherhood is not exactly applauded in the Muslim community. (Truth be told, it will create additional headaches for her security detail.) Jealously guarding her private life, she cannot help but set an example. Without suggesting to others, including girls born into the Muslim community, that this is what modern society expects, the way she is handling it is nonetheless a way of insisting that this is what modern society accepts. And she, born and bred in France, will treat public references to her as a "Muslim woman" with all the contempt they deserve.

This, indeed, is arguably the strongest, toughest, hardest battle in the Sarkozy reform program. If he and his government can restore, as they say they want to, and extend, and expand, and build upon, those famous "values of the Republic" which brook no differences in the standards by which French citizens are regarded and rewarded, they will, above and beyond all the potshots at "vulgarity," give something big to their compatriots, and some day they will be thanked. #

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.