AFP - French justice minister Rachida Dati, a single mother and the first senior senior cabinet member of North African origin, is to quit President Nicolas Sarkozy's government, her party confirmed Friday.
Dati will stand in June's European parliamentary election and will step down if successful, officials in Sarkozy's office told AFP, just three weeks after the president's glamorous protegee gave birth to a daughter.
Since she will be the second candidate on the right-wing ruling UMP's list for the Paris region, there is no doubt she will win a seat, and Sarkozy has made it clear cabinet members have no time to also serve as Euro MPs.
The minister herself remained tight-lipped about her future, but the daily Le Figaro reported that the 43-year-old was "resigned" to leaving in exchange for Sarkozy's support in building a career in electoral politics.
Long a Sarkozy ally, Dati shot to prominence in 2007, as one of three politicians of North African descent named to the president's right-wing government and the first to hold a senior cabinet post.
But since then she has run into a string of setbacks, as aides resigned over her management style and critics accused her of bludgeoning through unpopular reforms without allowing proper debate.
She had reportedly fallen out of favour with her political mentor Sarkozy over her failure to win the support of the legal establishment for measures to streamline the judicial system.
Dati's high-profile lifestyle -- she often appears in the lifestyle press sporting expensive designer gowns and socialising with celebrities -- was also seen as out of tune with a France in economic crisis.
Amid this political storm, her refusal to name the father of three-week-old Zohra on the grounds that she has "a complicated private life" thrust her into the media spotlight and sparked an intense media guessing game.
News of her departure came as Spain's former prime minister Jose Maria Aznar was forced to deny, for a second time, that he had fathered her child.
"I am used to putting up with a few rumours, a few slanders. As far as I am concerned, this is slander," Aznar told French radio Europe 1 on Friday when asked about Internet rumours naming him as the father.
"I have spoken very clearly on this matter. I don't know who started these rumours. I have taken legal action. I stand by my legal actions," said the conservative politician, who is married with children.
Aznar issued a statement in September denying as "totally and completely false" a rumour that he was the father, published on a Moroccan website.
Dati was at the centre of more debate when she returned to work just five days after giving birth by caesarian section, fuelling public discussion about the challenge of juggling a high-powered career with motherhood.
But commentators suggested she had little choice but to race back, pointing at Sarkozy's decision to announce a major justice reform the very day she checked out of the maternity clinic, as evidence her job was on the line.