Former maid Rachel Keke has taken on her employers and won an uphill battle for better working conditions at the Paris hotel where she cleaned. Now she is running for MP.
Keke, 48, will stand on a ticket for a new left-wing alliance in the French legislative elections in June.
She takes on French President Emmanuel Macron’s former sports minister, Roxana Maracineanu, in the fight for a seat in the southeastern suburbs of Paris.
“I’m going to beat her. She doesn’t live here. She’s not from the working-class suburbs,” Keke told AFP as she campaigned in the Chevilly-Larue neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital. .
“Why are you coming here?” Keke said, as if addressing her rival.
“We are the ones who live in deprived neighborhoods and carry out key jobs. We are the ones who are despised and exploited. So let’s defend ourselves in parliament.”
Centrist Macron is seeking a legislative majority to advance his national agenda after his re-election in April. The left alliance, made up of new faces like Keke’s, is threatening to block his programme.
Keke was one of about 20 chambermaids – mostly from sub-Saharan Africa – who defied their employers at an Ibis hotel in northwest Paris to demand better pay and working conditions.
Almost two years later, in May 2021, the fight against the global hotel giant Accor, owner of the Ibis brand, ended in victory. They won a salary increase of between 250 and 500 euros ($270-540) per month.
“Leader of the masses”
MPs from the far-left La France Insoumise (LFI) party supported women throughout the campaign, leading Keke to campaign for them in the presidential election.
But standing in the legislative elections was not part of his plans, until the local LFI official, Hadi Issahnan, proposed it to him.
“We are not far from being a symbol of our political struggle, literally. She naturally embodies it,” Issahnan told AFP.
LFI MP Eric Coquerel said Keke “has something magnetic about her”.
“She’s strong, she finds the right words and doesn’t have to read from clues when she speaks.”
“That’s what I call a leader of the masses,” he added.
Keke was born in Ivory Coast. Her mother sold clothes and her father was a bus driver.
After her mother died when she was 12, she took care of her siblings.
The mother of five arrived in France, aged 26, in 2000.
“I love France,” Keke said, recalling stories she heard as a child about her grandfather, who fought in World War II in the southern town of Pau -West of France.
Keke started as a hairdresser before becoming a cleaner in a hotel.
“After my first day, I came home with pain all over. It felt like I had been punched all over. It was really hard,” she said.
Cleaning is work that “destroys the body”, she says.
LFI leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon became the dominant force on the left in the April presidential election.
He missed the second round against Macron by a hair, beaten to third place by far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.
After Macron’s victory, Melenchon immediately urged voters to give the left a parliamentary majority to block the president’s pro-business reforms. He himself seeks to become Prime Minister.
Part of Melenchon’s strategy is to push forward new faces such as Keke – a candidate of “symbolic importance”, according to Emeric Brehier, a former socialist lawmaker now with the Fondation Jean-Jaures think tank.
“The left says, ‘We represent the real working classes and we have representatives of those classes,'” Brehier told AFP.
Stéphane Ravacley, a baker who has gone on a hunger strike in eastern France to protest against the planned expulsion of his young Guinean apprentice, is also running on the left-wing ticket.
Recent opinion polls show that the presidential majority and the left alliance are neck and neck in the popular vote.
But the two-stage election – the first round on June 12 and the second round on June 19 – and the fact that LFI’s popularity is concentrated in specific geographical areas, suggest Macron’s bloc is likely to retain a majority in parliament.
Keke said she was not afraid to be around professional politicians, mostly from a different social class.
“People know about maid status. They know I don’t have a master’s degree,” she says.
“If someone asks me a question that I don’t understand, I won’t answer. The media have to get used to that.”