When the French justice minister, Rachida Dati, went back to work earlier this month only five days after giving birth, she was ripped to shreds by other women. I'm not sure how far Ms Dati was aware of the unpleasant things being said of her, given that her return to work caused a much bigger furore in the UK than it did in France. But in this country she was roundly condemned for turning up at the office so soon after a Caesarean and doing it in a pair of high heels!
Personally, I never believed Ms Dati was making a point about being a role model or how easy it is to combine work and motherhood; I just thought she was terrified of losing her job. With good reason; two days ago, news leaked out that Ms Dati would be stepping down as a minister to contest a seat in the European Parliament.
This face-saving formula emerged exactly three weeks after Ms Dati gave birth and confirmed the reputation of her boss, President Nicolas Sarkozy, for ruthlessness. Ms Dati served him well to begin with, when he plucked her from obscurity and made her the first female minister of North African origin. But she was becoming a liability long before she became a single mother. The paternity of her daughter is currently the subject of excited speculation in France, with the former prime minister of Spain, José Maria Aznar, one of several prominent men who have robustly denied being the father; now intrusive speculation has moved on to a sperm bank. In her day job, Ms Dati has outraged lawyers and judges with her plan to close courtrooms and cut jobs, and she is widely (and damagingly) regarded as having no existence independent of the President.
On Friday, as French political commentators pondered her demotion, Le Monde recalled Mr Sarkozy's unpleasant boast: "Rachida, when I tell her to do something, she does it."
In the circumstances, no matter how Ms Dati felt physically or emotionally after her daughter's birth, it wouldn't be surprising if she thought she'd better put on a brave face and get back to work. One of her chief political antagonists, the former Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, certainly thought so, telling Ms Dati's critics to lay off; Ms Royal has four children herself.
And while Ms Dati is undoubtedly no great shakes as a minister, it's striking that the nastiest attacks on her have been personal rather than political. She makes no secret of liking clothes and has even on occasion upstaged Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who reportedly taunted her during a reception and accused Ms Dati of having wanted to share the President's bed.
This is a familiar and depressing story, in which a stylish woman attracts the envy of other women to a point that clouds reason.
Earlier this month, female commentators looked at 43-year-old Ms Dati and apparently saw a woman who had it all: terrific looks, a fantastic job, and a baby at an age when she should have been quietly resigned to never becoming a mother. Not only that, but she was striding around in stilettos only days after the birth. Cue all sorts of spiteful remarks, but appearances are often deceptive. Like many single mothers, Ms Dati will soon find herself demoted, if not actually out of a job.Reuse content