x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

France's female Arab mayor a role model who highlights personal effort

Rachida Dati, whose ultimate goal is widely considered to be the Elysee, says her first principle has always been 'hard work'. Colin Randall brings this second instalment from Paris.

Mayor of Paris’s 7th arrondissement, Rachida Dati, is one of 11 children of poor, illiterate immigrants, a Moroccan bricklayer and Algerian mother.
Mayor of Paris’s 7th arrondissement, Rachida Dati, is one of 11 children of poor, illiterate immigrants, a Moroccan bricklayer and Algerian mother.

PARIS // For Rachida Dati, the first woman of North African immigrant descent to reach French cabinet office and run a Parisian district as mayor, nothing in politics is impossible.

And it is with this conviction in mind that she talks of pursuing dreams of success that would, if fulfilled, bring her even greater recognition in public life.

Her ambitions do not end with the hope of taking control, against sizeable odds, of the city hall of Paris when municipal elections take place next March. Although she is coy, in public utterances, about any thoughts of becoming French president, the Elysee is widely considered her ultimate goal.

An expression occasionally heard in France from those wishing to impress others on their work ethic, commitment and creative flair runs something like: "I have 10 ideas a day."

Rachida Dati, interviewed in her mayoral offices in Paris's seventh arrondissement, puts it differently.

"I have a new idea every day and try to see to it that it works," she says, at once making the boast plausible and emphasising an absolute determination to make things happen.

And one of those ideas, on whichever day it occurred to her, is that her progress in politics need not stop in Strasbourg and Brussels, seats of the European parliament, or in Parisian council chambers.

Nothing she says to qualify this ambition, and make it seem to apply generally to anyone sharing her humble immigrant origins, shakes that belief that she sees the presidency as a role to which she would be suited.

"I always hold that in politics, everything is possible," she says. "You can have the best, the exceptional, the worst. It is such an irrational domain, one that can create conventionalism, sectarianism, conservatism, elitism."

In narrow municipal terms, Ms Dati's knack of coming up with ideas translates into such initiatives as discounted textbooks for children "to encourage them in their exams", "guardian angel" awards for caretakers of apartment blocks, free access to important arts events and international cultural exchanges.

A series of glossy brochures traces her achievements, year by year, as mayor of the capital's seventh arrondissement since 2008.

More broadly, she talks of ending deeply embedded rich-poor division on how the capital is administered even if she cannot actually redistribute wealth. She also wants to develop a "global vision" for the city, of the sort she sees the flamboyant Boris Johnson, another politician with an eye of high office, creating as mayor of London.

Ms Dati is not a socialist do-gooder but a figure of the mainstream French right, albeit a strand of political thought that is significantly more centrist than, say, Mr Johnson's British conservative philosophy.

Nationally, Ms Dati was championed by Nicolas Sarkozy from when he was interior minister to the first phase of his presidency.

She attracted as much criticism as praise; critics in the French media portrayed her as authoritarian, rash and hard to work with.

But she also proved herself a bold decision-maker, guiding radical judicial reforms through French parliament in the face of a hostile magistrature. She studied British prison administration, adopting the idea of a national controller. Earlier she had worked with Mr Sarkozy on a scheme to tackle juvenile delinquency.

And long before her life turned to active politics, there was the small matter of bursting free from unpromising origins in the provinces to ensure she did a lot better than her parents could have hoped.

"I have encountered a lot of resistance but my first principle has always been hard work," she said, seated at her desk and toying endlessly with her Blackberry.

The resistance she describes includes the way she feels she has been presented by political foes and sections of the media. "What is normal for others becomes bizarre for me, what is formidable in others is opportunism or cynicism in me."

Ms Dati was born in Saint-Rémy, in Burgundy. It sounds an idyllic corner of provincial France but probably does not feel that way if you grow up on one of its council estates, as she did, one of 11 children of poor, illiterate immigrants, a Moroccan bricklayer and Algerian mother.

In fact there were 12 children in a household that also included the child of an elder sister. At a time when Ms Dati was minister of justice in Mr Sarkozy's "tough on crime" government, two brothers were in trouble with the law for drug dealing, one of them having previously been jailed.

Her own involvement with France's legal system has been entirely respectable, even if many lawyers and jurists opposed the changes she introduced. Her first job was as a paramedical assistant but, after relentless study, she went on to forge a high-flying career in accountancy, audit management and economics, became a magistrate and served as an assistant to the public prosecutor in Evry, south of Paris.

Ms Dati says her experience in government and Europe equips her for whatever responsibilities future roles may involve.

On France and Islam, and the strained relationship between the country and Europe's largest Muslim population - estimated at five to seven million - she is adamant that if she is any kind of role model, it is in highlighting the advancement personal effort can bring.

She wants the full weight of the law used to fight discrimination but also welcomes a new political climate in which it is no longer taboo - even on the left - to discuss immigration control.

Reflecting on events in the Arab world, she strongly supports evolution, with an emphasis on improving the rights of ordinary people, rather than the radicalisation of desire for change.

European countries, even as diverse as Sweden and those of the Latin south, probably have more in common with one another, she argues, than the component parts of a region stretching from Morocco to the UAE and Oman.

"It is a very diverse region. An Emirati is not like a Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, Saudi Arabian, Egyptian or Tunisian. So the Arab world is a geographical entity rather than a political bloc."

All the same, she adds, "this richness of [Arab] diversity adds up to a powerful force, especially in the context of a globalised world".

In her campaign to conquer Paris, in the face of tough competition inside and beyond her own party (the Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP), she insists her background would tempt voters more accustomed to supporting the Left.

Beyond the capital, her resolve to appeal across the class divide presents an even stiffer task. Many Muslims, probably a large majority, see the socialists as most closely representing their interests; many French people on the right remain suspicious of a politician who is not only a woman but an Arab.

"Too often Arab and Muslim are confused in a way that makes Muslim seem a problem for many," she says. "In times of crisis and difficulty, there is not the calm atmosphere in which the difference can be stressed."

Yet she identifies gradual evolution in France and among the French, judging that the country does not have an identity carved in stone but is enriched by disparate influences.

Even so, she blames the anti-Islam Front National for driving Mr Sarkozy from office and, by splitting the conservative vote, handing power to the socialists.

France, she says has suffered the consequences: "Never has a president plunged to such levels of unpopularity in just 10 months in office."

Her comments were made shortly before Francois Hollande's government was plunged into fresh crisis with the public confession from his disgraced former budget minister, Jerome Cahuzac that he had descended into a "spiral of lies" when falsely denying undeclared overseas bank deposits.

Ms Dati speaks quickly and at length on almost any question put to her. But there are limits.

There is a child's bicycle in her office but, suspicious of prurient attention, she draws the line at her private life. This is hardly surprising; France's once-restrained press produced lurid coverage when she began proceedings, to establish the paternity of her four-year old daughter, Zohra.

But she may feel the intrusion has been worth enduring as a unwelcome accompaniment to a lively career in which she has left her mark on the justice system and even the constitution.

It was Ms Dati who presented a constitutional amendment to parliament in 2008, paving the way for France's ratification of the EU Lisbon treaty.

"To have my signature, the name of my family, beside that of Michel Debre, the creator of the French constitution, the fundamental law of the country, is very moving … a source of great pride not only personally but for a category of French people."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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