ROME, Italy – Nicolas Sarkozy's break with Rachida Dati was an ugly French political divorce.
Now as the president struggles to inject life into his re-election campaign, he's made up with the controversial former minister who is France's highest-profile politician from a North-African immigrant background.
Political commentators where shocked when Dati showed up alongside Sarkozy as he travelled to a campaign rally Thursday in Lille, but she drew a rapturous response from supporters in the tough northern city, a stronghold of Sarkozy's Socialist opponents.
“I'm like you,” she told the largely working-class crowd. “Like me, many of you had brave parents who fought to give their children a better life.”
Dati was a star of Sarkozy's first campaign in 2007. The daughter of a Moroccan-born construction worker and his Algerian-born wife, she grew up with 10 brothers and sisters. The young Dati paid her way through university working part-time as a cleaner or shop assistant, a background that set her apart from the privileged elite that makes up much of France's political establishment.
After Sarkozy appointed her as justice minister in 2007, Dati was hailed as a role mode by the president's center-right supporters.
Read more: Can Sarkozy pull it off?
Things soon started to go downhill. Dati came under attack over her managerial style. Her glamorous clothes were mocked as part of Sarkozy's “bling-bling” image. And conservatives were upset when the unmarried Dati announced she was pregnant and declined to name the father.
Personal relations with Sarkozy also soured. Dati was a close friend of Sarkozy's second wife Cecilia, who he divorced shortly after becoming president. She reportedly did not see eye-to-eye with the new first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.
Dati resigned in 2009. Outside the presidential entourage, Dati began to criticise the government, and when rumours began circulating about mutual infidelities in France's first couple, Parisian gossips whispered that Dati was the source.
Trailing in polls ahead of April's presidential election, Sarkozy seems to have put any bad blood in the past. “I need her,” the Paris daily Le Monde quoted Sarkozy as telling aides. “I want to bring everybody together.”
Dati is viewed as a possible vote-winner among women, the working-class and minorities, but bringing her back on board could also be a risk. Dati is no longer the rising star who surprised and charmed voters disillusioned with the old political establishment, and she could make an easy target for opponents.
Media reports about her political comeback focused more on Dati's footwear than her speech. “Nobody could have imagined the former presidential spokeswoman would have the nerve to show up balanced on bright red boots with heals that would not have shamed Lady Gaga!” exclaimed the news magazine Le Point.