Workplace bullying blamed for Dati's return to work

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Workplace bullying by President Nicolas Sarkozy was the real reason why the French justice minister returned to work five days after having a baby, the former presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, said yesterday.

Mme Royal - who has four children and was the first French minister to give birth while in office - jumped to the support of her bitter political enemy, Rachida Dati, whose rapid resumption of her duties has been criticised by women's groups.

Mme Dati's decision was hers alone and the criticism is “indecent and injust”, Mme Royal said. The Socialist politician went on, however, to lambast President Sarkozy for making an important policy announcement in Mme Dati's area of responsibility so soon after she gave birth to a baby girl.

The justice minister was put under “extremely violent pressure” to return to front-line politics or risk losing her job, Mme Royal suggested.

“His brutal, provocative and humiliating behaviour showed a total lack of respect,” she said. “Instead of reassuring and protecting her, he gave her a psychological shove in the back and left her with an impossible choice.”

“Under employment law, that would be called workplace bullying.”

Mme Dati, 43, gave birth to a baby daughter, Zohra, last Friday week. She turned up for the first cabinet meeting of the New Year last Wednesday. On the same day, President Sarkozy announced radical plans to transform the French justice system, including the abolition of independent, investigating magistrates.

Women's right groups have accused Mme Dati of undermining the social and legal case for maternity leave and inviting unscrupulous employers to put pressure on women to return to physical work too soon after giving birth.

Mme Royal, who introduced paternity leave when she was the family minister in the 1990s, said she thought that Mme Dati had gone back to work too soon.

“To be on your feet five days after a caesarean birth is too soon, no doubt,” she said. “But if you have an exceptional job, you sometimes have to act in an exceptional way.”

“I wish people would leave Rachida Dati alone!”

Mme Royal's support for Mme Dati caused some astonishment across the political spectrum yesterday. As spokeswoman for the successful Sarkozy presidential campaign in 2007, Mme Dati was one of the most vicious critics of Mme Royal and her rival campaign.

The former candidate - who hopes to run again in 2012 - also revealed yesterday that she had concealed her pregnancy from the then prime minister, Pierre Beregovoy(acute on both e's) when she was offered the post of education minister in 1992. When she gave birth to her daughter, Flora, in July that year, she allowed TV cameras into the hospital because she thought it wrong that professional women should have to “hide their maternity”.

Nadine Morano, the current family minister, accused Mme Royal yesterday of cynically “hijacking a happy event on our side of politics” to win some publicity. At least, she said, Mme Dati had not had to conceal her pregnancy from her colleagues - as Mme Royal originally did in 1992.

The controversy over Mme Dati's early return to work has blotted out - temporarily perhaps - another controversy. The justice minister, a political unknown before being catapulted into a front-rank job by President Sarkozy in May 2007, is unmarried. She has steadfastly refused, in the face of media speculation, to name the father of her child.