Byline: KEITH DOVKANTS
WHEN the French justice minister Rachida Dati returned to work this week only five days after giving birth to her first child, the Paris papers studiously ignored the fact she has still not named the father of the baby.
In France, journalists are fond of saying that news stops at the bedroom door and France-Inter radio commentator Renaud Revel noted: "The father has been known to the newsrooms for weeks. But not a line, not a name ... not the slightest allusion has appeared." So who is this man at the heart of the French media's open secret? According to the Evening Standard's sources in
Paris, the favourite ultimately to claim the honour of fathering Ms Dati's child is Francois-Henri Pinault, the 45-yearold head of the PPR fashion and luxury goods conglomerate.
Mr Pinault is one of France's richest men. His empire includes Gucci and Stella McCartney's label. There have been no overt signs of a romance between him and 43-year-old Ms Dati, but it has been revealed that during a meeting of the French cabinet last summer, Ms Dati confided to Valerie Pecresse, the higher education minister, that she was being troubled by rumours that she was "with" him. Significantly, she did not deny they were true.
All she has said, on the record, is that her personal life is "complicated". That would certainly be the case if Mr Pinault were the father. Last July he was preparing to marry Salma Hayek, the Hollywood actor and Ugly Betty star.
The couple first met in 2006 and later told friends they had fallen in love at first sight. Mr Pinault's fabulously wealthy parents planned an extraordinary wedding for Ms Hayek and their son.
It was to have been held at Venice's Palazzo Grassi, the Renaissance palace bought by the Pinault family and turned into an art gallery. Pinault pere, also called Francois, and his wife Maryvonne invited more than 500 guests including supermodel Naomi Campbell and French actress and singer Arielle Dombasle.
Everything was arranged. Then, last July, Pinault Jr cancelled, saying he was "too busy". Ms Hayek was already spending most of her time in Los Angeles where she has permanent custody of Valentina Paloma, the child she had with Mr Pinault. He spent a lot of time last summer flying between France and Los Angeles to visit the child. Intriguingly, at that time, Ms Dati is said to have told her cabinet colleague, interior minister Michele Alliot-Marie, that the father of her baby was always travelling.
That, of course, could apply to the other suspects in the Who's The Daddy? affair. Intense speculation in the bistros and the blogosphere has offered up names including Jose Maria Aznar, the former Spanish prime minister; Henri Proglio, the Veolia environment group chief; Dominique Desseigne, head of the Barriere casino and hotel chain and sports minister Bernard Laporte. All are powerful men with international commitments.
But what links them to the ravishing French justice minister? In the case of ex-Spanish PM Mr Aznar it is a story that appears to have started with an investigation by the Moroccan secret service. According to reports in Morocco, spies discovered evidence that Mr Aznar is the father. He has emphatically denied it. Yet to fully savour the significance of the Moroccan connection, it is necessary to go back to Ms Dati's roots.
"Don't try to turn my life into a novel," she once said. Indeed, no one would imagine Ms Dati as Madame de Bovary, but there is a strong hint of Becky Sharp. She was born in the Dijon area, daughter of a Moroccan stonemason and his Algerian wife who died when Rachida was still a child. There were 12 children in the family and her father, Mbark, worked hard to provide for them all. At 16, Rachida was forced to give up her education and find a job. At first she worked as a carer, then she sold cosmetics door to door. According to one report, her beauty and radiant smile made her the most successful Avon lady in France. …