The super-short maternity leave of French Justice Minister Rachida Dati is stirring debate over how to juggle a high-powered political career with the demands of motherhood.
The 43-year-old minister has been a hot topic of discussion since she returned to work last week only five days after the caesarian birth of her daughter Zohra.
After stepping out of a Paris maternity clinic, Dati arrived smiling and spruced up for a Cabinet meeting at the Elysee presidential palace.
While women’s groups say Dati set a bad example, many of her fellow female politicians admit they too would have opted for a quick return to work: Politics, they say, requires 100-percent commitment.
“Being back on the job only five days after a caesarian is too soon, there’s no doubt about that,” said former presidential candidate Segolene Royal, who in 1992 became France’s first pregnant minister.
“But this exceptional duty requires exceptional behavior,” she said.
A prominent Socialist, Royal took a swipe at French President Nicolas Sarkozy for choosing to announce a major justice reform on the day Dati left the maternity clinic and said he was trying to steal her thunder.
“I understand that Rachida Dati felt that she had to be at the president’s side” when he announced justice reforms, Royal said.
She also said she sought to hide her pregnancy when she was environment minister.
France prides itself for progressive social policies that give women 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, but these laws do not apply to ministers and elected officials.
Higher Education Minister Valerie Pecresse, a mother of three, won broad approval from the left and right when she suggested extending those legal provisions to women in politics.
“In the current system, Rachida Dati did not have choice and I think I would have done the same thing,” said Pecresse, who called for new legislation to give mayors, deputies and ministers the right to the same maternity leave.
But family affairs minister Nadine Morano countered that there was no need for new legislation and that a minister could ask the president to grant her maternity leave by decree.
“There is no need to be a slave to politics,” commented Roger Karoutchi, a senior member of the governing UMP party.
But he said 16 weeks of maternity leave “is nevertheless a very, very long time.”
Amid the brouhaha, some voices have argued that Dati’s choices as a new mother are nobody’s business but her own.
“Leave Rachida alone,” fired former first lady Bernadette Chirac. “She just had a beautiful baby and this is her private life.”
The new leader of the Workers’ Struggle party, Nathalie Arthaud, said the debate over Dati’s maternity leave was bourgeois chatter, telling politicians to focus instead on the plight of “cashiers, office staff and workers.”
Dati shot to prominence in 2007, when she became the first politician of north African origin named to a senior French government post.