Rise of Rachida Dati: The minister, the 'virgin bride' and the row that's dividing a nation

When a man was granted a divorce because his wife had lied about being a virgin, the reaction in France was hysterical. And at the centre of the debate is a politician with a very personal interest in the case. By John Lichfield

Two decades ago Rachida Dati, a French daughter of north African immigrants, got married to a man that she barely knew. It was not quite an arranged marriage. It was a marriage "to please her family". She immediately regretted her decision. She persuaded her Algerian husband to agree to an instant annulment.

Rachida Dati was in her early twenties at the time and making her way as a young lawyer and businesswoman in Paris. Through hard work, as a law student and by taking menial jobs, she had already fought her way clear of her impoverished, immigrant family of 11 brothers and sisters just north of Lyons.

Two decades later, Mme Dati is France's first senior minister of north African origin. She is a protégée of President Nicolas Sarkozy. She has been catapulted without previous experience – and her enemies insist without any political skills – into one of the most senior and potentially explosive jobs in French government. As Justice Minister, she has already made several mistakes and many enemies, not least among her own political "allies". She is resented especially by several experienced, male, white, centre-right politicians who think that they have a superior claim to her plum job.

President Sarkozy calls her a "symbol" of his attempts to break down racial and social and gender barriers in France. As a symbol, he has told her several times, she has "no right to fail".

Mme Dati, 43, now finds herself at the centre of a dangerous but, in many ways, foolish, national controversy. By one of the great ironies beloved of novelists and filmmakers, the controversy turns on an annulled marriage between two young French people of north African origin.

M. X, an engineer in his 30s, and recent convert to a strict reading of the Koran, married Mlle Y, a nursing student in her 20s. Before they were married, she promised him that she was a virgin. On their marriage night, M. X stormed out of their bedroom to protest to the wedding party – still in progress – that his wife had lied to him. She was not a virgin.

Under Article 180 of the French civil code, a marriage partner can demand an annulment if his or her spouse fails to fulfil an "essential" part of their pre-wedding agreement.

The court's decision was made public late last week. It was made clear that the crucial point was not the bride's lack of virginity but her lack of truthfulness. She had misled her partner. "Married life began with a lie, which is contrary to the reciprocal confidence between the married parties," the court ruled.

There followed an explosion of outrage and political posturing – partly understandable but partly exaggerated and based on deliberate, or lazy, misrepresentation of the facts of the case.

The Lille court, it was alleged, had decided that virginity was an "essential quality" in a bride. (No it hadn't). In a country rooted in secular principles, this was a dangerous slide towards "sharia law" (No it wasn't).

Fadela Amara, the minister for France's troubled multi-racial suburbs, a courageous campaigner against sexism in immigrant communities, said the court ruling was a "fatwa against the emancipation of women". Dounia Bouzar, an anthropologist and the author of books on Islam in Europe, said: "It's a victory for fundamentalists and a victory for those who look at Islam as an archaic religion that treats women badly... I'm sure the judge wanted to be respectful to Islam. Instead, the decision was respectful to fundamentalists."

The ruling can be read that way. Fundamentalist Islam does not demand virgin bridegrooms, only virgin brides. The judgement is also, however, a fairly logical application of France's existing marriage law. Several devout Catholic spouses have won similar annulments on the grounds that their partner had lied to them and concealed a previous divorce. Devout Catholics have a right, under French law, to demand undivorced spouses. That does not mean that French courts disapprove of divorce.

Left-of-centre politicians were outraged by the judgment. Centre-right politicians were oddly divided. Some seemed unsure whether to support the court ruling because they approved of virginity or to oppose it because they disapproved of Islam and north Africans. The veteran feminist campaigner, Elisabeth Badinter, injected a welcome note of common sense. The real, practical problem with the judgment, she said, was that it would boost an existing, disgusting industry in the "re-creation" of virgin hymens among young French women of north African origin.

Into this wasp's nest of sincerity, confusion and deliberate bad faith, Mme Dati innocently reached her hand. No, she said, she saw no reason why the Government should appeal against the Lille judgment. "The annulment of a marriage is a way of separating rapidly – a way of protecting someone who wishes to be free of a marriage," she said.

"I think that this young woman, for her own part, also wanted to be separated from her husband as soon as possible.

"The justice system is there to protect the weak and the modest when they are in difficulty."

No one has asked Mme Dati about her own annulled marriage. No one in the French press has tried to make a connection between the two episodes 20 years apart. It is telling, however, that Mme Dati's sympathies were with the young woman. Remembering her own narrow escape from a loveless marriage, she had perhaps, thought that the young woman was fortunate to have escaped from life with a narrow-minded, religious and sexual bigot.

Politically, however, Mme Dati's reply was a catastrophe. Everyone from the far left to Marine Le Pen on the far right piled in to accuse her of insensitivity, of lack of understanding of France's secular tradition and – implicitly – of being soft on Islam.

Finally, yesterday Mme Dati was forced to retreat. The justice ministry acknowledged that the Lille ruling had, "provoked a heated social debate". In the circumstances, it said, "the ruling could be said to have wider significance than the relationship between two individuals. It touched all citizens of our country and especially women."

The justice ministry has therefore asked the local public prosecutor to appeal against the judgment – and to try to restore the marriage of two young people who no longer want to be mar

ried. The episode is, therefore, officially over, until the appeal hearing is heard. But has Mme Dati been fatally wounded? Has the woman who "cannot afford to fail" finally exhausted the patience of President Sarkozy?

This is not Mme Dati's first gaffe – if gaffe it truly was. There is no argument about her energy or her intelligence. From the first days of her appointment, 13 months ago, there have been deep doubts about her political skills. There has been a procession of departures from her private office. She has managed to anger senior judges and magistrates throughout France by bulldozing through plans to reduce the country's generous thickets of local courts.

There was scarcely concealed glee in some parts of her own centre-right camp when two of her brothers were tried for drug dealing. In the early months of her tenure, both President Sarkozy and anti-racist groups dismissed the criticism as exaggerated: the inevitable price of his attempt to open up the French political system to people of African and Arab background for the first time.

SOS-Racisme said Mme Dati was "paying the price for being the first person from a Maghreb immigrant background to reach such a high government position". The International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA) said she was the "victim of an unfair campaign because of the sound of her surname". No such anti-racism spokesmen have stepped forward to defend her this time.

And President Sarkozy? Mme Dati was his protégée and adviser at the interior ministry. He parachuted her into the justice ministry, one of the top half dozen jobs in French government. Rachida Dati was, however, also a close friend of the second Mme Sarkozy, now departed. Since the installation of a new empress in the Elysée Palace, Mme Dati's relationship with the President appears to have weakened.

She protested – in tears, according to Le Monde – when she was excluded last month from an inner-cabinet of ministers close to M. Sarkozy who were invited to a special, informal strategy session at the Elysée Palace. (The Prime Minister, François Fillon, was also excluded).

According to Le Monde, President Sarkozy reassured her that her position close to the throne was safe. He repeated his mantra. She was a "symbol for all the children of France". She could not fail and – more importantly – President Sarkozy could not afford her to fail.

That was, however, before the row exploded about the Lille court's judgment.

Here, then, is a tale of virginity, religion, race, lies and politics. The virginity is partly Mme Dati's political virginity. The lies are not just those told by the bride in the Lille court case.

In any European country the formula would be an awkward one. In France, so sensitive about its secular tradition, so insensitive for so long about its treatment of the children of immigrants, the formula is explosive.

President Sarkozy has made many mistakes since he came to office but he deserves great credit for his attempt to open up French public life, socially and racially. Mme Dati may not have been a perfect choice but there were no more experienced candidates. No previous government, of right or left, had felt it necessary to include, at senior level, politicians of north African origin.

In all the anguished, or fake-anguished debate about the Lille judgment, no commentator or politician has pointed out how difficult this episode must have been for a woman with Mme Dati's extraordinary life-story.

And what of M. X and Mlle Y? If the government's appeal succeeds, their marriage will be restored. They will become M. and Mme X. They can – and will – however seek a quickie divorce, without any reference to virginity, Islam or politics.

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