President Nicolas Sarkozy sent out a powerful message to France's five million Muslims on Friday by appointing a woman of North African origin to the key post of justice minister.
Rachida Dati, a 41-year-old newcomer to government who shot to national attention as Sarkozy's election campaign spokeswoman, is the first French Muslim politician to hold a top government job.
Her appointment breaks important new ground in a country where north and west African immigrants and their children are severely under-represented in public life -- an imbalance seen as one of the reasons behind the 2005 riots.
Tall and impeccably turned out, Dati grew up on a public housing estate in the western French city of Chalon sur Saone, the daughter of a Moroccan labourer and an illiterate Algerian mother.
The second of 12 children, she worked her way through her studies as a nursing assistant, earning a raft of degrees in law, economics and business.
Dati worked as a magistrate and an accountant, carrying out public and private sector audits, before becoming Sarkozy's advisor on delinquency in 2002 -- using fierce determination to break through to the right-winger's inner circle.
"I wanted to work with him, so I wrote to him. No answer. I wrote again. Still no answer. But since I really, really really wanted this, I wrote to him again. That time, he wrote back," she said at the time.
"For him, I am not just a token Arab. I have a real advisor's role," she said.
Dati sees herself as living proof that it is possible in French society to overcome poverty and discrimination through hard work.
"We need to stop seeing people of immigrant background as either problems or victims," she once said.
"It's not always easy for us to climb the social ladder. But the Republic makes success possible. Public examinations are the same for everyone."
Dati does not see herself as a spokeswoman for France's troubled suburbs -- and has often been at loggerheads with community groups in the suburbs critical of Sarkozy's tough line on immigration and law and order.
As justice minister, she would be in charge of rolling out Sarkozy's planned reform of criminal law, that would toughen sentences for young offenders, including from the suburbs.
But Dati has also repeatedly defended Sarkozy against charges of racism sparked by his tough campaign talk on controlling immigration and defending French identity.
She also supports Sarkozy's call for some form of affirmative action, based on socio-economic rather than ethnic grounds.
But there is strong resistance in France to US-style affirmative action, with critics saying it would undermine the Republican principle of equal citizenship regardless of race or religion.
The riots two years ago in high-immigration French suburbs cast the spotlight on ethnic discrimination in the job market and public life, but there have been few signs of radical change.
There are currently 10 black deputies in the 577-seat lower house National Assembly, all from French overseas territories in the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean.
Among the 555 elected in mainland France, none are black or of Muslim North African origin.
Source: Middle East Online (English)