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

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