PARIS - Rachida Dati, a woman with North African roots, was named justice minister in France's new cabinet yesterday, 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.
Women here did not get the vote until 1944 and only 14 percent of the legislature is female. But France now has one of the highest numbers of female 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, Sarkozy spokesman Franck Louvrier said.
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 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," political analyst Dominique Moisi said.
Still, the Togo-born rapper Rost, who worked to get out the vote in the troubled areas, was unconvinced her appointment would improve justice for minorities. "It's a good thing for her," he said, "and perhaps a beginning for some because it allows them to believe it's possible to make it in society."
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.
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.