Saturday, August 8, 2009

Turning our backs on the Queen

Because of health and safety, we are no longer expected to walk backwards before the Queen, observes Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.

So 'elf'n'safety have proved that they outrank the House of Windsor. From now on, no one, except for two particular courtiers and Jack Straw, the Lord Chancellor, will walk backwards from the presence of the Queen. The practice is deemed too dangerous, we are told, but Her Majesty can't bring herself to see it disappear altogether.

In anyone else, you would suspect that this would derive from the levity that the sight presents (and the irrational hope, perhaps, that Lord Irvine might one day return to the Lord Chancellor's office). But in the case of the Queen, what you see is what you get. Whatever her personal preferences, she is resolved to follow the law of the land at all times.

I wonder, though, how it was decided that the Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps and the Queen's equerry would be the ones selected. Did the current holders, Charles Gray and Andy Calame, draw lots? Did they have to pass a strenuous physical exam? Will they be forced to carry beepers that whistle out a warning to passers-by during the procedure, like articulated lorries? And hasn't Mr Straw done enough backing down to last a lifetime?

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2009

Twisted histories last the longest

Writers from Shakespeare to Walter Scott have fired our imaginations with gross but entertaining fallacies, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.

According to a new study, Hollywood films that take liberties with the past damage people's knowledge of history – even when they once knew the correct facts. But while this is likely true, it's nothing new. Writers from Shakespeare to Walter Scott have fired our imaginations with gross but entertaining fallacies: Cleopatra, Richard the Lionheart and Richard III have never recovered from the extreme makeovers they received according to Elizabethan or Victorian tastes.

Alexandre Dumas rewrote the Counter-Reformation in France; Schiller created folk heroes from scratch (a revisionism abetted and amplified by the Italian librettists employed by Donizetti, Bellini or Verdi).

On screen, too, for every painstakingly accurate – yes, superbly entertaining – I, Claudius, there are a dozen Troys, Gladiators and Romes. And yet even if they scramble the viewer's knowledge, these works still send people in droves to classical history courses, and fire up lasting enthusiasms. Old Carlyle can't have recruited a tenth of the amount.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2009

Harriet Harman and Ségolène Royal: sisters under the skin

Harriet Harman's political style, if nothing else, recalls the bossiness of French socialist Ségolène Royal.

Segolene Royal
Ségolène Royal: a firm believer that the state knows best Photo: Reuters

What is it with Socialist women politicians and their seemingly uncontrollable urge to give feminism a bad name? As part of the improbable duo left in charge during Gordon Brown’s Scottish staycation, Harriet Harman managed the feat of making Lord Mandelson seem like a safe pair of hands. Between criticising men (“they can’t be left running things on their own”) and turf-brawling with Jack Straw’s mandarins over the announcement of new measures for rape victims, Miss Harman certainly made a lasting impression.

Love her or hate her, you can’t ignore her. In fact, that seems to be the plan – to make herself so omnipresent, whether out of genuine conviction or tactical positioning, that her ascension to the leadership becomes inevitable.

Yet one Continental example should serve as a warning. Ségolène Royal, the French Socialist, rammed her candidacy for the presidency through her party’s primaries with exactly the same combination of ostentatious feminism and obsessive self-promotion. Whenever she was rebuked for one of her numerous gaffes (from praising the “speed” of the Chinese law courts, to being hoaxed by a comedian into supporting Québecois and Corsican independence, to getting the number of French nuclear submarines wrong), Royal blamed the attitude of men – whether her adversary, Nicolas Sarkozy, or her own party grandees – faced with a female candidate.

Soon, any question she didn’t wish to answer was brushed aside angrily on feminist grounds. “You wouldn’t dare pose such a question to a man,” she spat at a bemused New York Times reporter who asked her to outline her foreign policy.

Like Harman, Ségolène comes from a privileged background. The daughter of a career officer, she was educated in select Catholic schools. Again like Harman, her accent combines the populist vowels more often heard from shop stewards with the preachy – occasionally downright messianic – overtones of the Sunday sermon. She attended ENA, the elite government school that has produced eight of France’s last 15 prime ministers, two of six presidents, almost half the cabinet and almost the entirety of the civil service elite.

ENA does produce competent people, but they are often accused, with good reason, of being detached from everyday reality. Few “énarques” have any experience of the private sector; far fewer are entrepreneurs. They have abstract notions of what it means to meet a payroll, and are great believers in social engineering and that the state knows best. Sound familiar?

Of course, Ségolène differs from her British counterpart in one crucial aspect – although blessed with a good figure and a lovely oval face, there has been much speculation that she underwent radical cosmetic surgery to firm up her jaw, accentuate her cheekbones and give her a radiant smile. (She has never commented, but comparing the cover of an early autobiography raises certain questions.)

The British don’t object to their women politicians looking more schoolmarmish than glamorous, and they might mistrust the kind of unmarried glamourpuss who, after a hard-fought campaign, kicks out the father of her four children, and gets chased by the paparazzi during the holidays she spends with her new beau. Over the Channel, it’s a non-issue. Even among French feminists, some attention is paid to looks and to fashion.

On the other hand, Ségolène, like Harriet, has few women friends and supporters. Her colleagues find her arrogant and unpredictable: her feminism is on her terms only. More reticent (and competent) female politicians are known to complain in private that Ségolène’s grandstanding sets back women’s political advances. “She fabricates issues where progress had already been achieved,” Michèle Alliot-Marie, one of the Sarkozy government mainstays, has complained.

But as both Harriet and Ségolène might tell you, when you’re a self-proclaimed champion of women everywhere, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2009

Thursday, June 18, 2009

I'll admit it, the French don't get Brüno

Sacha Baron Cohen's latest caricature is just a big bully, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.

Something tells me that we French are going to have a problem with Brüno, the Sacha Baron Cohen alter ego who is threatening to do for Austria what Borat did for Kazakhstan. On the other side of the Atlantic, one effete Euro-metrosexual may look like any other, as he prances around pranking rednecks and Paula Abdul alike. But we’re not buying it.

Italian fashion, we can accept. British fashion, even – just look at the swell job we gave John Galliano at Dior. But a gay Austrian fashion reporter? To the Parisian, Austrian fashion doesn’t extend beyond field-green loden coats, anything with edelweiss flowers embroidered on it, and those voluminous silk curtains with puffball sleeves that women wear at the Salzburg Festival. Similarly, the idea of a gay Austrian doesn’t so much bring up the catwalk as the late Jörg Haider, the neo-Nazi politician. (Bet he went for leather instead of hot pants, though.)

The problem is that while stereotyping other countries, then happily slagging them off, is a sport enjoyed by all, there’s surprisingly little overlap between nations. The English think of Americans as bullying, simplistic colonials, over-fed and over here, given to murdering the language with their excessively loud voices. The French mutter darkly about a Yankee masterplan to destroy Gallic culture, secretly hatched by Disney, Google and the CIA. Many Islamists see blasphemous, licentious heathens: Sayyid Qutb, the leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, spent a year at a Bible Belt college in the Forties and came back horrified by the innocent community dances held in church halls.

Such caricatures, of course, tell us as much about those who hold them as their target. When Brüno camped it up last week on the Champs-Elysées, cracking jokes about Carla Bruni’s love life, he was acting like a typical Brit – only you, it seems, are unable to accept the fact that a 40-year-old woman is comfortable with having had lovers. Of course, we’re just as bad: no amount of Michelin rosettes for the likes of Gordon Ramsay will erase our view of the British as a nation bred on over-cooked meat served with improbable jams and peas hard enough to be used for grapeshot, washed down with warm beer or gallons of nut-brown tea.

In French eyes, the British manage to have sex crimes but no sex lives (replaced by hotwater bottles from Boots); you are simultaneously perfidious and worship "le fair play"; you have the raunchiest tabloids and the most Victorian assumptions about how politicians should behave in private; as with the ducks you so like to shoot, your males are better dressed than your females; and, of course, you poisoned Napoleon.

As Baron Cohen proved with Borat, such stereotypes lend themselves to being exploited. While the British are suspicious of French men, expecting a suspiciously natty, chain-smoking poseur, always ready with a flowery compliment or Brussels directive, you paint us Frenchwomen in a more flattering light. We are Basil Fawlty’s unattainable charmer, Madame Peignoir, or Juliette Binoche in Damage: thinner, better dressers, always hostesses, never housewives.

Baron Cohen’s problem as we see it is that he is a typical product of a public-school, Oxbridge education, and of Britain’s unique tolerance for shock tactics. You laud him as an example of cuttingedge Jewish humour; to us, he has much more in common with Monty Python or the Christmas panto. Like Borat, Brüno uses the methods of the school bully, as much behind the camera as in front of it – those who complain, like the Kazakh foreign minister or poor Paula Abdul, are dripping wet, can’t-take-a-joke spoilsports.

Or perhaps that’s just my own prejudices showing.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2009

Friday, June 5, 2009

The D-Day shindig has been bad news for Sarkozy

The French president may rue the day he thought up this photo-op, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet

As Nicolas Sarkozy prepares for the hardest-won photo-op of his presidency – the D-Day commemorations on the Normandy beaches, starring Barack Obama, with the Prince of Wales and Gordon Brown as last-minute supporting players – he could be forgiven for thinking himself ill-used. What started as a mid-scale, bilateral event at the American military cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer (which is US soil, donated by France in perpetuity) has been successively targeted by the big guns of the Daily Mail, Downing Street, Sarkozy's socialist opposition, and the White House Communications Office.

Admittedly, Sarko's own intentions weren't entirely selfless. Yes, he is the first president since de Gaulle to pay constant and sincere homage to veterans of the Second World War and La Résistance (he was brought up by his arch-Gaullist maternal grandfather, a Jewish physician who was banned from practising during the Nazi occupation and had to go into hiding). But Sarkozy is also very aware that in the run-up to the European elections, held tomorrow over here, Obama is the ultimate arm-candy, a little touch of Yes-We-Can on the hustings.

A year ago, when Obama, still on the campaign trail, had just given his Berlin speech, Sarko invited him for a joint press conference at the Elysée, deploying all the ceremony usually reserved for heads of state. The two were bestest buddies, joking that they had reconciled their two countries after the froideur of George W Bush, Jacques Chirac and "freedom fries".

But since that golden moment – in fact, since Obama's election victory – the most pro-American French president ever has been snubbed. In vain did Sarko angle, time and again, for an invitation to Washington (he would have loved those DVDs that Gordon brought home). In vain did he plea for a repeat of the Elysée event in April. The Obamas, visiting Strasbourg for the Nato summit just after France re-joined the organisation, had no time, positively no time, to swing by Paris: the Bruni-Sarkozys had to make do with a short walkabout in Alsace. Adding insult to injury, Obama made the case for admitting Turkey into the EU, something both Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel are dead set against.

As for today's D-Day visit, which will mobilise several platoons of gendarmes and practically cordon off Normandy (7,000 official guests are expected, including Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks), the White House had – as of yesterday morning – still not given a firm schedule to the Elysée, whose hyper-professional flacks were uncharacteristically briefing against their American counterparts. No, Mr Obama had not accepted the dinner invitation on Friday; there would only be a working lunch in Caen today. Yes, Mrs Obama and her daughters would be staying in Paris over the weekend, but their plans were "uncertain"; it was a "private visit".

However, it was the fracas involving the Queen's invitation – or the lack of it – that really stirred things up. As it happens, nobody in Paris reacted at first to the accusation of a snub to Buckingham Palace. The French, who were originally planning to have Sarkozy attend a specific French-American ceremony, acceded to Downing Street's request that Gordon Brown tag along. But it was only when Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, insisted that Mr Obama wanted the Queen to attend, and was "working with those involved to see if we can make that happen", that the whole affaire took off.

The French opposition, which is expected to trail behind Sarkozy's UMP party in the Euro-elections tomorrow, realised that while French law forbids political campaigning from midnight onwards on the Saturday before a Sunday poll, Sarkozy would be on every television screen before the vote, saying worthy, statesmanlike things. They grabbed the Obama-validated royal story and ran with it. Sarkozy was pelted with insults by every opposition candidate in the country, who flew – with no sense of irony – to the defence of Britain, usually painted as the fly in the Euro-ointment. Sarkozy's behaviour towards Her Majesty was that of a cad, a buffoon, a jerk, a pathetic human being with no manners – a bad European, and a worse Frenchman.

Then, into this heated atmosphere, came the translation of Obama's speech in Cairo. Fabricated outrage was instantly replaced by very real indignation, in a country where the neutrality of the public space is sacrosanct. Obama's pointed words defending the hijab aroused the ire of feminists, teachers' unions, and even moderate Muslim groups, who have come to a civilised arrangement with the headscarf law, which bans the conspicuous display of religious symbols in schools. Equally vocal were France's political parties – not least the president's own.

For the first time, newspaper websites were full of anti-Obama comments – a decided first in France. However much he looked forward to standing shoulder to shoulder with the US president, Sarko may rue the day he dreamt up this D-Day photo-op.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2009

Friday, May 15, 2009

Carla Bruni is fine - it's Sarkozy the neighbours can't handle

Sarko jogs early in the morning, accompanied by a retinue of aides and protection officers; has breakfast before 7am; then zooms to the office in a motorcade of bulletproof limousines, all sirens blaring. Nobody in rue Pierre-Guérin can sleep in, says Anne Elisabeth Moutet.
As every deal-deprived Paris estate agent enviously knows, Carla Bruni, épouse Sarkozy, is house-hunting. Her pretty 5,000 sq ft house on rue Pierre-Guérin, in the depths of the very bourgeois 16th arrondissement, is proving inconvenient as main presidential residence.

As long as Carla lived there with her cat, her dog, and her son Aurélien – whose father, philosopher Raphaël Enthoven, conveniently resides across the garden in another building – everything was hunky-dory, not least with her staid neighbours, who could recognise une jeune fille de bonne famille; one of theirs, however Bohemian.

Carla was always polite; if she gave parties, apologetic handwritten notes warned of possible disturbances; her in-house recording studio was soundproof.

Enter Nicolas Sarkozy, aka le Président bling-bling. Suddenly, residents’ cars parked on the quiet rue Pierre-Guérin are moved to make room for police protection and back-up; uniformed flics start checking the IDs of passers-bys; half the street’s wheelie bins (including the noisy glass-container ones) are moved at all hours to prevent terrorists using them for bombs; and everyone’s life is made thoroughly miserable.

Sarko jogs early in the morning, accompanied by a retinue of aides and protection officers; has breakfast before 7am; then zooms to the office in a motorcade of bulletproof limousines, all sirens blaring. Nobody in rue Pierre-Guérin can sleep in.

Sarko has famously said that he would “never yield to the pressure of the street”; but he meant the demonstrations the French so appreciate. The pressure of the Seizième rue was apparently harder to bear. And so Carla and Nicolas have been looking at suitable places to buy. It is, after all, the right time for it – Paris house prices have fallen by an average 25 per cent. The happy couple have looked at a 12 million euro former Carmelite monastery not far from Carla’s present address. Last week, they were spotted at Yves Saint Laurent’s old pad on rue de Babylone.

Wags have made a lot of the fact that Carla’s best-known old flame, Mick Jagger, owns two flats in the same building; but that’s not something Sarkozy will object to – if anything, he finds it an added attraction. A tribal man, he early on forced the bewildered Enthoven to call him tu; as the father of his wife’s son, he explained, he was now “part of the family”.

* The French are bemused by the MPs’ expenses scandal. French MPs, who are more or less paid the same amount as their British counterparts, have for a long time been in the habit of employing wives and relatives as parliamentary aides, a practice no one bats an eyelid about. They do not get large expenses, but enjoy low-interest bank loans, free first-class train tickets, and a good pension and health coverage plans. Those who do spend, spend, spend are Cabinet ministers. Rachida Dati famously claimed for tights and make-up.

* When former president Jacques Chirac heard that Google was planning to digitise all books, including French ones, with Google Books, he nearly blew a gasket. A commercial, American company? A large budget was immediately allotted to a committee of upper civil servants to create the digital library that would Save French Culture. Alas, three years later, Gallica, the Bibliothèque nationale de France website, is still unable to provide more than a couple of thousand electronic books, so that it is still easier to read online Balzac, Molière or Proust in English at Project Gutenberg than in the original French.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2009

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Nicolas Sarkozy just wanted to prove he could win

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet believes that charm played but a minor role in the wooing of Carla Bruni.

Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy: Carla Bruni 'sees herself as successor to Princess Diana'

Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy Photo: Getty

'Can this be how French lovers woo women?" my British friends ask, reading with appalled fascination about Nicolas Sarkozy's speedy dinner conquest (four hours over drinks, dinner, café and petits-fours) of Carla Bruni at the house of spin doctor Jacques Séguéla a little over a year ago. Bruni and Sarkozy then kissed; Séguéla told in his book, Autobiographie non autorisée, published yesterday.

The French know the tale already – the dinner party at which Sarkozy, barely weeks after his divorce from second wife Cécilia, had eyes only for his blind date. (Besides, Séguéla, who recently predicted that Sarkozy would never fire Rachida Dati "because she's the only star in the Cabinet", is, at 75, less than an irrefutable authority.) Everywhere other than in France, it seems, they are shocked.

"But it's so trite. So clichéd. So…" So successful?

"We expected poetry! Philosophy! Literary allusions! Panache! Not sniping about Mick Jagger's bony calves!" Sarkozy even had the class to lean over and whisper in Bruni's ear, "Bet you don't have the nerve right now in front of everyone to kiss me on the mouth".

Not that I can guarantee all Frenchmen in a romantic mood will spout snatches of Derrida and Baudelaire over a glass of Phélan-Ségur, but it's worth remembering at this stage that Sarkozy is an atypical president. He talks bluntly, he pounces on his objectives, regardless of collateral hurt feelings and he gets what he wants.

No one in France was particularly surprised to learn that this was also his romantic modus operandi.

For those taken aback by Sarko's demeanour, it's worth bearing in mind the general servility of the French in a court-type situation – the president, or the CEO, like King Louis XIV, is given free rein to behave as he wishes. At the Séguélas, the other six guests just sat back, piped down, and watched the Sarko and Carla show.

Your traditional French lover believes he is making an incomparable gift of himself when he pays attention to a lucky female. The natty suits, the sophisticated conversation, all this is part of the image; a pretty girl is merely the ultimate accessory. However, this doesn't apply to Sarkozy, who has nurtured feelings of inadequacy all his life, and compensated accordingly.

He was short, he had a foreign-sounding name, he was the son of a divorced mother and lived with his two brothers in comparatively shabby-genteel conditions in Paris's poshest suburb, Neuilly. His estranged Hungarian father told him he had no future in politics in France. Now look at him: he became mayor of Neuilly at 28, and president of France at 52. He's had innumerable girlfriends and been married three times. He does not drink, does not smoke (except the occasional cigar), runs every morning, and exhausts a crew of aides who're mostly 20 years his juniors. Sarko may come across in politics as over-confident, but he is still driven – Woody Allen with a success compulsion.

Now engineer a meeting with Carla Bruni, a kind of Liz Hurley with class, and watch the sparks fly. They were each other's dream – Sarko the ultimate bag for a big-game huntress; Bruni the woman too beautiful for a president who is still trying to prove himself. It's Sarko's sincerity, more than his words, which got to La Bruni. When he told her "We'll do better than Marilyn and Kennedy" (note the order), he did not think of adulterous liaisons, a pills overdose, minders cleaning out the suicide house in the small hours; but of eternal youth and legendary fame.

In many ways, Sarkozy has an overarching, Caesarean view of destiny. In love, as in politics, he believes victory trumps style. Perhaps his private life shows us that in a Sarkozy world, victory is style.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2009

Friday, January 30, 2009

Sarkozy's rainbow cabinet turns drab

Rachida Dati is just one of the victims as harsh reality saps the glamour from the French cabinet, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.
Rachida Dati
Rachida Dati: charm could not save her Photo: EPA

You know there's a real recession on when glamour no longer saves your bacon in Paris. Justice minister Rachida Dati found this out last week, when Nicolas Sarkozy ordered her to give up her cabinet post and add some much-needed diversity to his party's Euro-elections list.

You can't fire the government's brightest star, Sarko was warned by his spin doctors. Oh yes I can, said the president, who had tired in equal parts of Dati's lacklustre performance as justice minister and celebrity turn as Dior model, Paris Match cover girl and mysterious single mother. More than a million people filled the streets on Thursday, striking against the handling of the economic crisis. It is no time to parade a cabinetful of smart, exotic women in couture pencil skirts over four-inch Louboutins.

Another widely tipped casualty is Senegal-born junior minister Rama Yade, 32, who was first to decline the dreaded Euro elections job, earning Sarkozy's lasting ire. She can no longer call the president directly, and her many letters and ingratiating gifts (including a heart-shaped giant box of chocolates) to Sarko haven't even been acknowledged.

Of Sarkozy's famed 2007 rainbow cabinet, there will soon remain only one: Fadela Amara, the 44-year-old French-Algerian urban affairs minister, who was seen early on as the one most likely to fail. Her aides were as inexperienced as she was, top mandarins sniffed. Ms Amara, a former Socialist alderwoman from Clermont-Ferrand in Auvergne, is chiefly known for founding Ni Putes, Ni Soumises (Neither Sluts Nor Submissives), a feminist association fighting forced marriages, violence and gang rapes of women in France's most depressed areas.

There's a lot of gritty commitment, and the occasional flash of raw charm to Fadela Amara, but no glamour. She shops at H&M, cuts her hair in her own bathroom, and still lives in a working-class part of Paris rather than use her ministry's official residence near the Eiffel Tower. For long, Fadela Amara was the ungainly tortoise to her colleagues' elegant hares. Her protective colouring and native virtue seem to have paid off at last: even in Paris, 2009 will be the year of drab.

ŠThe demonstrators may have been out in force, but the so-called general strike was, in fact, practically unnoticeable in most parts of France. Metro trains were spaced by only a couple of additional minutes; buses ran normally; the post landed on my doormat as usual; even suburban trains were available at peak hours.

So who was blocking traffic in most high streets, singing Marxist anthems and demanding more jobs, more pay, bank bosses hanging from lampposts? Public sector employees, of course – those in the private sector are only too aware of how precarious their jobs are – and the swelling ranks of France's new far-Left coalition, led by a dapper Trotskyite former postman, Olivier Besancenot. The 34-year-old's clean looks and smile sit oddly with his militant rhetoric, but he is a firm favourite with Sarkozy: the more votes he polls, the more he splits the traditional Left.

* Only one person, it seems, can attend a star-studded dinner-party in top-to-toe YSL and sapphire-and-diamond jewellery on the very day of the strikes, and still escape criticism: Carla Bruni, of course, who enjoys cross-party, Obama-esque poll ratings. La Bruni presided with aplomb over the Aids charity Sidaction's traditional Fashion Week dinner. When the first lady's husband made a surprise appearance at the end of the evening to pick her up, she even got him a round of applause – certainly the only one Sarkozy earned that day.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2009

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Rachida Dati left baby at home to save career

If you think France's most famous single mother, the justice minister Rachida Dati, had a choice when she returned to work just five days after delivering her daughter Zohra by caesarean section, think again.
If you think France's most famous single mother, the justice minister Rachida Dati, had a choice when she returned to work just five days after delivering her daughter Zohra by caesarean section, think again.
Rachida Dati feared losing her job if she decided to stay at home with her baby. Photo: REUTERS

Pictures of the radiant mother in the Elysée forecourt, coiffed, made-up and manicured, in a severe but figure-hugging size eight black Yves Saint Laurent outfit and four inch heels, stirred debate across France.

Was the 43-year-old minister striking a blow for women's liberation or setting it back 40 years?

Amid the clamour of competing opinions one important point can be easily overlooked: Miss Dati went back to work not from a position of strength but from a position of weakness. She feared losing her job if she decided to stay at home with her baby.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is planning a government reshuffle next week, is a notoriously impatient boss and his justice minister's competence has been called into question.

The purpose of her stage-managed picture opportunity was to ensure that nobody could possibly have thought of her as an unfit, over-the-hill mother left pregnant by a commitment-shy (and possibly adulterous) casual boyfriend.

In French politics, weakness is the cardinal mistake; image matters above everything. And women make it by being four times tougher than everybody else.

Miss Dati, was a highly-praised adviser to Mr Sarkozy, when he was interior minister. She was also an efficient presidential campaign spokesman for him 18 months ago when he won the highest office in the land.

However, no one could pretend she has been a successful justice minister. Given the task of making sweeping reforms to get more efficiency from France's creaking judicial bureaucracy, she antagonised magistrates' and prison wardens' unions – not least when they saw her modelling a Dior chiffon dress on the cover of Paris-Match the same week that she called for more budget cuts.

She has gone through more chiefs of staff at her ministry (conveniently located next to the Ritz on Place Vendôme) than Diana, the Princess of Wales, did at Kensington Palace.

Like almost every powerful woman in high office, she is said to be mercurial and bad-tempered, a charge rarely levelled against her equally Napoleonic male counterparts in France's political elite.

All the same, few ministers would have hauled a provincial judge out of bed after midnight to explain why a young thief had been sent to prison, where he subsequently committed suicide, prompting angry headlines.

Miss Dati had no such reluctance.

And fewer ministers, perhaps, would have chosen a tête-à-tête breakfast with Prince Albert of Monaco over a long-scheduled meeting with representatives from the prison wardens' unions, an incident said to have enraged Mr Sarkozy.

Significantly, he took it upon himself to announce yet another major, and potentially unpopular, reform of the justice system last week rather than waiting for his minister to return to work.

Any other minister would have been a foregone casualty in the projected cabinet reshuffle. Once an intimate of the Sarkozy couple – she and Mr Sarkozy's previous wife Cecilia called one another "sister" – Miss Dati has fallen from grace at the Elysée. She is a bête noire of the new Madame Sarkozy, Carla Bruni.

More significantly, she is not included in the Group of Seven, the seven ministers most appreciated by the president, who gather informally with him to plan the government's next moves.

However, it should be said that neither is the prime minister, François Fillon, who is nevertheless expected to keep his job next week.

For months, Miss Dati's job was saved by who she was: the primary face of Mr Sarkozy's rainbow coalition, the first Muslim in charge of a major cabinet post.

If not quite the most popular politician in the country, she is certainly the one whose face sells the most newspapers and magazine covers.

Young people like her. Women like her. Minorities like her. The Left pulls its punches when it comes to her.

Even her well-publicised spat with Mr Sarkozy's other high-profile cabinet minority appointment, the popular Senegal-born human rights secretary, Rama Yade, has failed to make a dent in her reputation. Her rival is in hot water with Mr Sarkozy, having refused to lead the Gaullist list in the European elections, prompting the president to call her a "spoiled brat".

But all this is predicated on one essential quality: Miss Dati must at all costs look like a winner. Let her stumble but once, and the thumbs will turn down in seconds. French politics is like a gladiator's arena: woe to the vanquished.

Her pregnancy could have finished her, and she knew it.

Hence the cameras outside the maternity clinic (positively restrained, the minister's friends will tell you, compared with the former Socialist presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, who held a photocall in the room where she had given birth to her daughter). Hence the YSL outfits and the make-up artist; hence the coy speculation, sometimes fuelled by the minister herself, about the identity of the baby's father.

The candidates include a Spanish politician, two chief executives of France's largest companies, a cabinet colleague, a television presenter and the president's brother.

Far from being a social reject, Miss Dati revelled in the celebrity spotlight. Mr Sarkozy saw his ratings plummet when he was tagged the "bling-bling president". But Miss Dati correctly assessed that making headlines, any kind of headlines, was better than fading into the background. Every newspaper article on her motherly qualities (or lack thereof), her feminism (or crass destruction of such) puts her firmly at the centre of attention.

Would you fire a woman triumphantly embodying the 21st century's contradictions?

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2009