PARIS – Rachida Dati, a woman with North African roots, was named justice minister in France's new Cabinet on Friday, an appointment rich with symbolism that the law will be colorblind in a nation still coping with the fallout from riots across immigrant-heavy neighborhoods two years ago.
She was one of seven women that President Nicolas Sarkozy, himself of Hungarian immigrant background, appointed to his 15-member Cabinet — making good on a campaign promise of gender balance after decades where women often played secondary roles or were outnumbered by men.
Women here did not get the vote until 1944 and only 14 percent of the national legislature is female. But France now has one of the highest numbers of women ministers of any country in Europe.
Never before has a woman with family ties in France's former North African colonies been given such a high-ranking ministry, said Sarkozy spokesman Franck Louvrier.
Dati, a 41-year-old lawyer, was raised in a housing project in the winemaking Burgundy region. She is the second child in a Muslim family of 12 children from a mother with Moroccan roots and a father of Algerian background.
"I wasn't raised in a cultivated milieu," Dati once said.
Her appointment reached out to black and Arab immigrants and their French children who have scant regard for Sarkozy because of his tough stance on crime and immigration. As Interior Minister, he infuriated many when he described delinquents as "scum" and said that crime-ridden poor neighborhoods needed to be power-hosed clean.
"The message: if you're a woman, or have North African origins, or come from a disfavored position in society, you can still make it in France," said political analyst Dominique Moisi.
Minority youths rioted for three weeks in the fall of 2005 after two teens of immigrant backgrounds accidentally were electrocuted when they were hiding from police in an electrical substation.
While no official statistics exist because France is officially colorblind about race and religion, officials have said Muslims make up about half the prison population. France has more than 5 million Muslims whose backgrounds are most often traced to former colonies in Africa.
Dati often visited immigrant-dominated neighborhoods during the campaign, and will have the task of pushing through stiffer penalties planned for repeat offenders and young delinquents. Before she worked for Sarkozy's campaign, she practiced law south of Paris for several years.
"I'm not convinced this is going to give minorities better justice," said the Togo-born rapper named Rost, who worked to get out the vote in the troubled areas. "It's a good thing for her, and perhaps a beginning for some because it allows them to believe it's possible to make it in society."
Sarkozy has said he wants to push through French-style affirmative action to give support to ethnic minorities and others shut out of mainstream society. But many said that was not Dati's case.
"To get to where she is, she has to be competent. That's a good sign," said Samir Mihi, a spokesman for AClefeu, a group created after the rioting to get out the vote in immigrant neighborhoods. "It's a shame that everyone is focusing only on her origins."
Sarkozy also drew strong condemnation by creating a new Ministry of Immigration, Integration and National Identity to manage the inflow of immigrants and protect French values and cohesion.
One of France's leading anti-racism groups, known by its initials MRAP, called it the "ministry of shame."
It "gives off the scandalous stench of racism and xenophobia," said Socialist Faouzi Lamdaoui.
The conservative Sarkozy also poached from rival political factions for his streamlined Cabinet, tasked with pulling France out of economic doldrums after 12 years under his predecessor, Jacques Chirac.
Sarkozy named humanitarian crusader Bernard Kouchner, a popular Socialist, as foreign minister. The defection is a blow to Socialists ahead of next month's legislative elections — and they responded by saying that they no longer considered Kouchner a member of their party.
Former Prime Minister Alain Juppe got a second life. He was given the environment portfolio — remarkable given his conviction in 2004 for a political financing scandal.