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Dati: Burka 'not a religious expression'

Rachida Dati
Dati: 'The burka does not correspond to our values'

The former French justice minister, Rachida Dati, has condemned the wearing of the burka, saying that it "does not correspond" to European values.

Ms Dati, the first person of North African descent to serve in the French cabinet, is in the UK to visit the Justice Secretary Jack Straw's Blackburn constituency.

In a rare interview, she told Today programme reporter Zubeida Malik that "it's important to remind what helps citizens live together and have a common destiny and living together and having a common destiny means having principles and values in common.

"And it's true that the burka" - the wearing of which is now the subject of heated debate in France - "does not correspond neither to our values nor to our principles whether French or British and not even European. So it is important to say no to this expression that is not a religious expression."

President Sarkozy and Rachida Dati
President Sarkozy brought Dati into his cabinet in 2002

Ms Dati rejected suggestions that banning the burka and other face veils would make them more popular. "We have to remember that often women who wear the burka are either doing it out of ignorance or others are motivated by an activism linked to the creation of a new identity," she said.

"And to those for whom it represents the expression of an identity, it is important to say that in our countries there can't be any confrontation of identities. There is one single identity based upon common values and principles shared by our countries."

Rachida Dati was a lawyer when she was named as French justice minister by President Sarkozy in 2007. She was the first person of North African origin to hold a top government post in Paris.

Born in 1965 to a Moroccan mason father and an Algerian mother, Ms Dati was one of 12 children raised in humble circumstances. Aged 16, she started working as a carer in a private clinic, looking after her younger sisters and brothers after her mother's death.

'Complicated private life'

But, working by day, learning by night, she gained degrees in both economics and law, and went on to work for various public and private companies - including a spell working as an accountant for French oil giant Elf.

In 1997, Rachida Dati enrolled in the prestigious National College of Magistrates, where she studied for two years. The ties with Nicolas Sarkozy that would eventually take her to the cabinet began in 2002.

She wrote to the then freshly-appointed interior minister, expressing her desire to advise him on immigration - Mr Sarkozy accepted.

She went on to become a constant figure at his side, taking on the tough job of spokeswoman during his presidential campaign.

As his adviser, she played an important role in dealing with the delicate issue of integration.

Rachida Dati at work in the EU Parliament
Rachida Dati at work in the EU Parliament

After the 2005 riots in the French suburbs, when Nicolas Sarkozy called the rioters - some of whom were of North African origin - "scum", Ms Dati worked behind the scenes to limit the damage, as her boss stood accused of racism.

After becoming justice minister, she became a controversial figure, being accused of pushing legislation through without proper consultation.

Ms Dati defends Sarkozy's "rainbow" government. "He wanted gender parity in his government, with women at responsibility roles, which never happened before, and also with different backgrounds, different social conditions, and also different ages as he is very young also," she says.

But, in 2009, she quit the Sarkozy cabinet and successfully ran for the European Parliament. Ms Dati had previously come under fire for returning to work just five days after giving birth.

A first-time mother, and single, she has kept the father's identity under wraps, telling reporters she had "a complicated private life" and sparking an intense guessing game in the French press.

Now settling in to her new role as an MEP, Rachida Dati has a brisk response to those who ask about a return to French politics: "But I have never left it!"

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