Sarkozy minister Rachida Dati targets Paris Mayor job
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Right wing candidate Rachida Dati draws her strength from a strong sense of where she came from and what she overcame. She did not start life like most French politicians.
In the final round of the elections for Mayor of Paris on June 28th, the first round runner up Rachida Dati hopes to topple incumbent Socialist mayor, Anne Hidalgo.
Who is she?
Rachida Dati made headlines aroundthe world in 2009 when she returned to her job as Justice Minister just 5 days after giving birth to a daughter, resolutely ignoring both condemnation and applause.
Sweeping into meetings in high heels, she also rebuffed gossipy questions about the baby’s father saying simply that she had a “very complicated private life”.
Dati is bold, independent and determined to be Mayor of Paris.
She has come a long way from the crowded social housing where she was raised as the second of eleven children by an Algerian mother and a Moroccan father who were both immigrants to France.
After training as a magistrate, by the age of 41 she was Minister of Justice, appointed in 2007 by Nicolas Sarkozy as the first woman from a North African background ever to hold a major ministerial post in France.
There was muttering in legal circles at the time that she was underqualified but the digs had little impact and Rachida Dati held the job for 2 years.
It was a time when Sarkozy and his inner circle embraced an“American-style” communication strategy, abandoning the traditional French discretion over private life. Rachida Dati was at the heart of it all and was frequently featured in glossy magazines.
She also saw through several key reforms to the justice system, including a small but significant modification to the marriage annulment laws.
Dati describes today what she labels a "forced marriage" following "cultural pressure" to marry in her late twenties. As Justice Minister she changed the law to make annulments easier in such cases. Her own marriage was annulled at the second attempt in 1995.
After the Justice post, she became an MEP and was elected to her current job as Mayor of the chic 7th arrondissement of Paris.
What would she do as Mayor of Paris?
Dati is tough on law and order and plans to install more surveillance cameras and create a better-equipped armed city police force.
She says she wants to give Paris back to Parisians and claims families are no longer comfortable in the forested Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes areas with their “drug traffickers, people traffickers, homeless people and migrants”.
To much criticism, she asserted recently that “the majority of migrants in Europe … are not aware of our Republican values”.
She maintains many such parents would accept a ban, understanding that religion is not allowed in France's state-run schools.
Her own religious convictions are unclear. Her father was buried in 2017 according to muslim rites but she attended a Catholic school for a while and declines to answer questions about whether she a convert to Catholicism.
Dati maintains too many of the city’s tougher neighbourhoods are becoming crime-ridden no-go areas for the police. She says it's unfair on local residents who are often themselves on low incomes and have a right to safety and proper police services.
On transportation, although incumbent Anne Hidalgo’s bike-friendly policies are popular with many, Rachida Dati is keen to woo voters who are not bike fans. There have been complaints from delivery drivers that the city is now too clogged up as more and more road space is dedicated to bikes.
To clean up the streets, where rats have become a problem, she plans to introduce special bins which close properly and dry ice which is used against rodents in New York and Chicago.
Will she win?
Her campaign for the first round was widely praised. She rarely deviated from her clear message that Paris had become dangerous and dirty and that she would clean things up.
In her own 7th arrondissement, she is clearly popular and won outright in March with no need for a second round run-off. She has reportedly given her mobile number to every concierge in the district for easy contact - along with the number of the district police chief.
Within her party, her numerous detractors were won over as her campaign gathered momentum before being interrupted by the lockdown, but she is a natural people person and she'll enjoy herself less in the second stage of the campaign with its zoom meetings and social distancing.
Her straight-talking style and energy has led to comparisons with Nicolas Sarkozy and like her former boss, she is "a political fighter” according to Bruno Cautrès of Sciences Po Paris. He also observes that she was one of three women of immigrant origins appointed as ministers in 2007 but the other two are largely forgotten. Dati is “the only one of them to survive in politics.”
Not without hindrances. She is currently under investigation for corruption, accused of misuse of company assets during Carlos Ghosn’s tenure at Renault. The case worried some in her right-wing Les Republicains party but Dati herself appears relaxed, insisting the allegations are part of a campaign to discredit her.
Much has happened since the first round of this election and it is hard to assess how the experience of the Covid-19 and the lockdown will affect the views of Paris voters.
Public transport is suddenly less attractive to many, while bikes are even more popular than before. There are fears that the capital's cultural life will take years to recover and that amid the boom in home working, companies might sell properties in the capital. The general economy has taken a huge hit.
Even before Covid-19 and the lockdown, statistics show that 12,000 Parisians were leaving the city every year. Would Rachida Dati be able to stem the exodus?
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