PARIS - Rachida Dati built her against-the-odds career by defying convention. So it was in character when — while serving as France's justice minister — she had a daughter and refused to say who the father was.
Now, what was once thought to be an exercise in discretion has morphed into a messy scandal involving tales of power, sex and ambition. Dati, now 46, says simply: "I have a complicated private life."
Dati was the toast of Paris and foreign capitals when she served as justice minister under then-President Nicolas Sarkozy from June 2007 to June 2009. With her Algerian and Moroccan parents and humble origins as one of 11 children in a housing project, she was his emblem of diversity in a new France. Her bling-bling style — a penchant for Dior clothes, stiletto heels and expensive jewels — quickly transformed her into Cabinet cover girl.
This week, Dati took one of France's richest men to court in a bid to prove he is the father of her 3-year-old. A court in Versailles has set a Dec. 4 date to decide whether to order Dominique Desseigne, the multimillionaire owner of luxury hotels and casinos, to take a paternity test.
The 68-year-old Desseigne, a friend of Sarkozy and the widowed father of two, is reportedly planning to exercise his right to refuse to provide a DNA sample. Experts say he would do so at his own risk.
The tale is the latest in a series of amorous sideshows that has spiced up the French political scene. These increasingly complicated liaisons have gnawed away at the country's long-standing veil of silence over top politicians' private lives.
Today, the press doesn't shirk at recounting the jealousies of President Francois Hollande's live-in companion toward the mother of his four children. Or Sarkozy's divorce while in office after his wife had an affair, and his quick remarriage to former model and singer Carla Bruni. Or the series of sexual lawsuits involving Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former chief of the International Monetary Fund.
Nor has it held back with the Dati case. The newspaper Le Monde suggested that Dati entertained a string of eight lovers around the time she was seeing Desseigne. Le Point ran a five-page spread entitled "The Incredible Story of Rachida Dati," prompting Dati to announce Friday that she plans to sue the magazine's director "and his band of so-called journalists."
"What bothers them about me? That I have a life ... that I'm a free woman?" she said on RTL radio, denouncing articles based on "rumours and calumny."
As the country's top judicial official, Dati had a bevy of detractors and raised the ire of lawyers, magistrates and aides who resigned one after the other. The nation, of course, was fascinated.
Still, her star was falling by the time Zohra was born on Jan. 2, 2009. Dati hung on until a government reshuffling in June. She now serves as a member of the European Parliament and keeps a link to the Paris power elite as the mayor of the capital's tony 7th district.
Throughout her pregnancy, rumours flew about the baby's father. An Arab sheik? A French politician? A Sarkozy brother? The name of the Spain's then-prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, was bandied about so prominently that he was forced to publicly deny it was he.
Dati still hasn't spoken about the little girl's father. But she wants Desseigne, chief of the Lucien Barriere casino group and owner of the famed Champs-Elysees establishment Fouquet's, to step forward. Doing so would give her daughter his name, access to child support and rights as an heir.
The court in Versailles has refused to release any information. But Desseigne, whose wife died in 2001, told M magazine he would contest the request for DNA.
Legal experts say that may be harder than he thinks.
Under the French Civil Code, paternity tests are given voluntarily. But text messages, emails, photos and airline tickets showing the two vacationed together all can be used to prove a relationship, said family law expert Laurence Mayer. And with such corroborating evidence, refusing a paternity test "can be analyzed as an admission."
The man denying fatherhood can try to discredit the woman by "showing she led a dissolute life," but Mayer said he does so "at his risk and peril."
Dati has already shown she is not to be taken lightly. Two men — both prison inmates who wrote letters claiming they were the father of Dati's child — have been convicted of insulting a public official.
Mayer doubts Dati would go this route without strong reason.
"If she does this, she is sure of herself," Mayer said. "Mrs. Dati is not just anyone. I don't think she will make herself ridiculous."