Rachida Dati, France’s new justice minister, has had a rough few weeks. She has lost key advisors, she’s been attacked in the press and her family has been put in the negative spotlight over drug charges against her brother. Anti-racism activists say Dati has been the victim of a smear campaign.
During his swearing in ceremony, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that as president, he would break with the country’s outdated traditions. One of his first moves was tofrom minority backgrounds to his cabinet.
For at least one member of his cabinet, however, the celebrations ended just about as quickly as the champagne had been poured. Justice Minister Rachida Dati, the daughter of a Moroccan bricklayer and an illiterate Algerian housewife, has been put to the test early. Journalists have questioned her educational qualifications, she has been criticized over a controversial bill that would apply tougher sentences to repeat offenders and the press has had a field day covering the trials and tribulations of her brother Jamal, who is going to court again on drug dealing charges.
French anti-racism groups are questioning the motives behind the unusally nasty sniping. Dominique Sopo, president of the group SOS Racism, told Liberation Monday she was being undermined by the French elite, which he described as “white, male and over 55.” Meanwhile, Patrick Gaubert a member of the European Parliament of the governing Union for Popular Movement (UMP) party and president of the LICRA anti-racism group has lashed out at the “unjust campaign” against Dati. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke to Gaubert about Dati’s ordeal and racism in France.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have said that Dati is the victim of an unjust campaign because of the sound of her family name. Is this a political attack or a racist smeer campaign?
Gaubert: Rachida Dati has had a pretty exceptional journey. And it shows that success is not based on social milieu or origin. But if Dati were named Yves Durant she would not have had the same problem. This is a woman who has arrived at the very top. This is a woman of North African origin. It is a very important job and I think that that has played a role.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What form have the attacks taken?
Gaubert: Journalists checked her high-school diploma. Sometimes the newspapers were attacking her brother. But one would have to be blind not to see that they were attacking her indirectly. If you want to attack someone you attack their family. That is easy. You don’t have to say directly: It is because she’s an Arab. Both Dominique Sopo, the president of SOS Racism, and myself were shocked by the attacks and decided to support her. And he, like myself, thought it was racism.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Besides Sarkozy and his wife Cecilia, few stood up for Dati within the UMP party. Do members of UMP have a problem with the fact that the justice minister is a woman and that she is North African?
Gaubert: On Tuesday they expressed their support for Dati, but that was only then. Everyone talks about women getting top jobs, and everyone talks about visible minorities, as we call them, and that they should also get these jobs like everyone else. And I find it curious that a woman of North African origin has to face such violent attacks without being defended. I didn’t hear a single woman in the government defend Dati by saying, “Look, there is a campaign against our colleague which is not acceptable.”
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Sopo said that the problem was caused by tensions within France’s graying white elite. Do you think this is a problem on both the left and on the right?
Gaubert: During the election people from visible minorities stood as candidates on both the left and the right. And only one African woman was elected in a very left-wing constituency in Paris. The French don’t seem to be ready to elect people from a visible minority. So maybe this society is not ready to have a woman from a foreign background in this important post. That really surprised us, because we thought we had evolved.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: President Sarkozy wanted to present an image of a new France when he appointed three women from ethnic backgrounds to his government. But these past few weeks have revealed a different image. Is this the true France?
Gaubert: The true France is a multicultural France. Where someone is appointed minister not because she is a woman but because she is competent. And not because she is from a visible minority. I am against positive discrimination. Someone can be intelligent and black, and someone can be an imbecile and white.
SPIEGEL ONLNE: Is a backlash growing against Sarkozy’s appointments?
Gaubert: Dati and Rama Yade had been very close to the candidate all through the campaign and for the past few years. They were not parachuted in from outside to look good. They are people who were in his entourage, who he worked with and he had the time to see their abilities, and to appointment them because they are capable of doing the job.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think that some people of North African origin are suspicious of her because she has joined a right-wing government?
Gaubert: Look, the left was in power for a long time and if the left had wanted to appoint black women and North African men, or Asian people, no one would have stopped them.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think she would have had the same problem if she were a man in this job?
Gaubert: People didn’t defend her because of her origins — not her gender. I would think it would be the same if she were a man with a North African background, because these people don’t like North Africans, men or women. It’s the same thing to them.
Originally published on SPIEGEL ONLINE International: