Rachida Dati seems an unlikely figure to be wooing supporters of France’s far right Front National party.
Needs must, however, and the daughter of a North African bricklayer who clawed her way to the top of the establishment ladder, before falling out of favour with President Nicolas Sarkozy, is now a key figure in his desperate battle to salvage his political career.
In his hour of need, Mr Sarkozy is rallying the troops to win over the 6.4 million French electors who voted for Marine Le Pen in the first round of the presidential election a week ago.
In response to being returned to the fold as one of the president’s cheerleaders, Miss Dati has launched a spirited defence of what critics have called a “moral fault” by the current president, accusing him of veering dangerously into FN territory to save his skin.
“You cannot say that these people, 18 per cent of the electorate, are racists and xenophobic. It’s not true,” Miss Dati told The Sunday Telegraph in an exclusive interview.
“I have met and talked to FN voters and they are exasperated and afraid that the socialists will come to power. They are worried about Europe being a colander in terms of immigration, they are worried about companies moving elsewhere, they are worried about jobs and the cost of living, and security.
“It’s for us to say to the FN voters, ‘We have heard your preoccupations’, to say to them that while the FN may have raised some good questions, it has proposed no solutions except rejecting others, creating scapegoats and the politics of hatred.”
This, she maintained, is what Mr Sarkozy has done since Sunday’s first round vote, in which the president received fewer votes than Francois Hollande, his Socialist Party rival, partly because of the unexpectedly strong showing by Miss Le Pen.
“Nicolas Sarkozy has said he understands why people voted for the FN,” she said. “He is not in agreement with the FN and he does not hold the ideology of the FN, but he has to speak for the whole of France including those who voted FN.”
Elaborating on the her own position as an immigrant’s daughter she added: “I firmly believe immigration is a benefit, I believe in diversity, in the mix of cultures, but we hope that in welcoming fewer we can better welcome them, we can have a real policy of integration.
“The ideology of the extreme Right, with its rejection of others, its xenophobia is certainly not mine. I mean, how could it be?”
Not so long ago Mr Sarkozy had little good to say about Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far right Front National party.
After Sunday’s vote, however, he was more conciliatory. He said he understood those who had voted for Miss Le Pen, describing them as “people who were suffering”. He said he had heard the message and would “listen”.
In less than 24 hours, immigration became a central theme of the election, with Mr Sarkozy stressing pledges to throw up the frontiers around France to keep out unwelcome immigrants and to severely restrict the number of foreigners allowed into the country.
At a rally last week, he made several references to France’s “Christian roots”, an emollient to Miss Le Pen’s claims that the country is suffering “creeping Islamisation”.
Mr Sarkozy told flag-waving supporters: “France has Christian roots whether you like that or not. To contest those Christian roots is to understand nothing of the history of France. The history of the country was built around the kings and church. That doesn’t make me a royalist or a Christian democrat. These are not right-wing ideas, they are common sense.”
Last weekend’s result puts Miss Le Pen in a delicate position. It is in her party’s interest for Mr Sarkozy to lose the election and for the French Right to implode, leaving the FN to take up the baton of opposition, but she cannot be seen to be supporting Mr Hollande. Nicolas Bay, one of her political advisors told Le Figaro: “Marine doesn’t want to be caught with the knife in her hand”.
Supporters will be waiting for what she has to say in an expected speech on May Day when the FN traditionally rallies around the statue of Joan of Arc in Paris—as will Mr Sarkozy himself.
Critics of his attempts to woo the extreme Right, however, have likened the president’s response to that of France’s wartime collaborationist leader, Marshal Philippe Pétain. Le Monde newspaper said the president had committed a “political and moral fault”.
The right of centre Le Figaro headline was unapologetic. “Nicolas Sarkozy out to reconquer the FN electorate”, it declared.
Miss Dati denies the president has veered wildly to the right or crossed any invisible moral or political line.
“Since the Arab Spring when we saw a huge wave of migrants arrive off the coast of Italy and when France temporarily closed her borders, Nicolas Sarkozy has said we have to re-establish the borders in Europe. This is not new.
“We are not suggesting France becomes an island or isolated, we are talking about a Europe that is protective not protectionist. We are not saying expel immigrants, we are saying we have to stop them coming. The only people who profit from this wave of human misery are the traffickers and mafia.”
Not so long ago, the president had little good to say about Miss Dati, either. She had been Mr Sarkozy’s high profile election campaign spokeswoman in 2007, for which she was rewarded with a cabinet post, but she was ousted in 2009 and sent off to Brussels and Strasbourg as a Euro MP, seen in political circles as the equivalent of being sent into exile.
Wagging tongues said the fall out had been so spectacular that Mr Sarkozy could no longer stand the sight of her, and the Elysée accused her of spreading false rumours about the state of the president’s marriage to Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the super-model turned singer, an accusation she vehemently denied.
More recently, however, the president said he regretted “not protecting her more”.
“I believed in her. She has talent,” he told French journalists, paving the way for Miss Dati’s spectacular public return at a presidential campaign rally in the northern French town of Lille.
Bruno Jeudi, editor of Le Journal du Dimanche, said that by bringing Miss Dati back into the bosom of his campaign, Mr Sarkozy was probably trying to regain “some of the magic of 2007”.
Others claimed the former minister, who has been the elected mayor of Paris’ 7th arondissement since 2008, has long term political ambitions, was considered safer inside the party than operating as a loose canon outside.
In her mayoral office in the chic 7th arrondissement of Paris, Miss Dati, 46, insisted that despite being previously estranged from Mr Sarkozy, she had always supported him.
“We had a time of difficult relations, but we cannot put the occasional anger before the general interest of France. I have always supported Nicolas Sarkozy’s action and conviction and I am at his side,” she said.
Saint-Remy in the Saône et Loire, the suburb of Chalon in east central France, where Miss Dati grew up on of 12 children of illiterate north African immigrés may have given Mr Sarkozy’s socialist challenger a huge majority in the first round vote (31.4 per cent), but she is convinced a socialist president would be a disaster for France. In her blog on the Huffington Post website she called for what she described as a “patriotic vote”.
“The socialists don’t understand the world has changed. They would take us back 60 years,” she said.
She added: “Nicolas Sarkozy has revived the values of the republican Right. For a long time in France we were ashamed to say we were right. Nicolas Sarkozy has re-established the right to be of the Right, to be of the party that prefers working to benefits, order to disorder, security to laxity.
“I have always said that Nicolas Sarkozy symbolises the French version of the American dream. He came from foreign roots and worked his way up all stages of the political party. He was never an apparatchik, he worked and had a job. “
Asked about the irony of an immigrant’s daughter appealing to the FN and supporting tight controls on immigration, Miss Dati’s riposte was short and sharp.
“Firstly, my father had a job when he arrived and wasn’t an illegal immigrant. Secondly there wasn’t the level of unemployment there is now.”
On the mantelpiece of Miss Dati’s office is a framed cartoon of her pulling on an oversize pair of boxing gloves. The caption reads: “My friend Karl made them to measure for me.” Karl is the designer Karl Lagerfeld, creative director at the haute couture house Chanel.
During her time in government, Rachida Dati was ferociously criticised for her expensive wardrobe after posing for the cover of Paris Match in a €1,850 Dior dress and turning up for work at the interior ministry in a €3,800 Chanel jacket.
“Are people saying I shouldn’t wear nice clothes, have my hair done, wear make-up, be feminine? I have always considered femininity to be part of my identity. When you represent the institutions and dignity of your country, you don’t dress in a sack,” she told The Sunday Telegraphlast year.
The images, however, contributed to Mr Sarkozy’s “bling bling” reputation and accusations that he was “President of the Rich”, criticism that still haunts him to this day. Asked why she thinks he never shook off the damaging perception, Miss Dati bristled.
“Is wealth taboo? Is he not allowed to be friends with the rich, people who have worked hard for their money, paid their taxes to get where they are. This ‘President of the Rich’ is a caricature invented by the media and the left, who have nothing better to offer than insults.”
In Lille, Miss Dati told the crowd that she was living proof of Mr Sarkozy’s “Strong France . . . where everything is possible whatever your social position or origins”.
Afterwards the criticism of her wardrobe and accusations of “bling” resurfaced; she was furious that commentators were more interested in the bright red suede stiletto-heeled Christian Louboutin boots she was wearing.
In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph last autumn, Miss Dati, was asked if she had presidential ambitions. She admitted: “Why not, if I can do something for my country?
“France is ready for a woman president, but the French political class is not. Still, if someone had said a few years ago that someone from a poor, immigrant family, and a woman too, would become justice minister, everyone would have said ‘impossible’.”
Today, Miss Dati may need those cartoon boxing gloves. She is squaring up for round one in her political battle: a fight with prime minister François Fillon for the right to stand in a Paris constituency. But, sitting in her large leather mayoral chair, she does not want to talk about that.
“Let’s win this election first,” she says.