French justice minister 'to leave government'

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Justice Minister Rachida Dati, a symbol of President Nicolas Sarkozy's desire to inject diversity into French politics, will leave the government this year to stand in European elections, political sources said today.

Dati was the first person from a north African background to reach a senior French cabinet position and was feted when she took office in 2007.

But her reputation has suffered in recent months, with critics accusing her of developing a taste for luxury and being heavy handed with magistrates, prison guards and her own staff.

She raised eyebrows this month when she rushed back to work just five days after giving birth, with the media reporting that she feared being sidelined during any prolonged absence. A divorcee, Dati has not named the father of her daughter.

Sarkozy was said to have been unhappy with her erratic performance, but decided against removing her in a recent government reshuffle, looking instead for a more dignified exit.

Confirming numerous newspaper reports, the sources said Dati would represent Sarkozy's centre-right UMP party at June's European parliamentary election and would leave the government just ahead of the vote.

There was no immediate comment from Dati's office.

Another cabinet figure, Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier, will also leave the government to stand in the election, opening the way for a new cabinet reshuffle before mid-year.

"Everything has fallen into place quite painlessly," said a senior member of the UMP party, declining to be named.

Sarkozy originally pushed for another of his proteges from the ethnic minorities to seek a European parliamentary seat, but Rama Yade, the Senegalese-born minister for human rights, refused to bow to the pressure and is remaining in Paris.

As the financial crisis bites, Sarkozy appears determined to make his government appear sober and gritty, urging ministers to shun any hint of excess or extravagance.