Cleaner who led pay strike faces former minister in Paris election

A hotel housekeeper who led a strike for better pay and conditions at one of the biggest hotels in Paris could become the first cleaner to be elected to the French parliament on Sunday, as a left alliance challenges Emmanuel Macron’s centrists.

Rachel Keke, 48, said years of gruelling work cleaning up to 40 rooms a day at the Ibis hotel in Batignolles would enable her to speak up for workers in parliament. Her aim was to “make visible those who are invisible”, she told one rally.

With dozens of other hotel cleaners, Keke led one of the longest hotel strikes in French history against the unpaid overtime and poor working conditions of outsourced cleaning staff. On the picket line, they also warned against the racism and sexual harassment experienced in the job, such as male hotel clients exposing their genitals to cleaners.

The strikers, mostly African women, finally won their struggle last year after almost two years. Keke said it echoed difficulties faced by other key workers, such as supermarket checkout staff or shop security guards who stand all day without being allowed to sit down.

“We are the ones who live in deprived areas and do key jobs,” she told Agence France-Presse. “We are the ones who are held in contempt and are exploited. So let us defend ourselves in parliament.”

From the housing estate where she lives in the southeastern suburbs of Paris, Keke is now leading a high-profile battle in this weekend’s French parliament elections. She is standing for a left alliance against Macron’s former sports minister Roxana Maracineanu, a onetime swimmer and Olympic silver medallist. Keke topped the poll in last week’s first round, and could achieve the extraordinary feat of knocking out the former ministert.

Keke said that having experienced intimidation, including being doused with water and racially insulted on the hotel picket line, politics did not scare her. “It’s like being a soldier who goes to war, sees everything and comes back and no longer fears anything,” she has told Reuters.

The local battle in the Val-de-Marne has echoes of France’s fraught national election campaign. The recently re-elected Macron needs a majority for his centrist grouping in order to have a free hand to implement his domestic policy, including raising the pension age and overhauling benefits. But the left alliance known as Nupes – which includes Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s hard-left France Unbowed party, as well as the Socialists and the Greens – is seeking to limit Macron’s lead and is forecast to become the biggest opposition force in parliament.

Macron’s camp has called the left alliance “dangerous” anarchists united behind the “macabre firebrand” Mélenchon, who would nudge France out of the EU, ally with Russia, bring “ruin” to France and disorder to the global stage. The left, in turn, have accused pro-business Macron of wanting to unravel the French welfare state and bring “chaos”.

Maracineanu appealed to voters on the right and centre to unite to keep out “the radical left”, saying she always fought “extremes”. She said she respected Keke’s background because her own family had fled Romania with just two suitcases, initially sleeping rough in France.

Keke was born in Ivory Coast to a bus-driver father and a mother who sold clothes. Her mother died when she was 12 and she had to leave school to care for her brothers and sisters. She arrived in France, where her grandfather fought during the second world war, in 2000. Battling to escape insalubrious housing and support her five children, Keke worked first as a hairdresser, then on a supermarket checkout, and finally as a hotel cleaner. She took French nationality in 2015.

Keke said singing in a gospel choir meant she could make her voice heard. Like Stéphane Ravacley, the baker and political novice running for the left in eastern France, she does not read from party crib sheets, but instead improvises her speeches at rallies.

On Keke’s housing estate in Chevilly-Larue, Ibrahim, 73, a neighbour and retired school canteen chef, said: “She’s an extremely nice person who talks to everyone. I only hope she won’t be taken advantage of by politicians, but she’s very intelligent and would see that coming.”

Ibrahim, whose brother-in-law had been at primary school with Mélenchon in Morocco, said he wasn’t sure he approved of Mélenchon’s large personality “hogging the spotlight” in leftwing politics and wondered if the left alliance may break up after the elections.

Jamel, who took over the local butcher’s shop last year, put Keke’s flyer in his window. “It would be exceptional to have someone in parliament who understands the everyday worries of workers in difficult jobs,” he said. “It shouldn’t be the exception, it should become the norm.”

Marie Leclerc Bruant, Keke’s running mate, compared the constituency of five small towns south-east of Paris to a “US swing state”. It voted for a rightwing member of parliament when the right’s Nicolas Sarkozy was president, for the left under the socialist François Hollande, and a centrist candidate during Macron’s first term.

Leclerc Bruant is a Green party deputy mayor in the town of Fresnes and has been part of a left alliance in municipal politics for two years. “There’s a big, new, national dynamic for this left alliance right now, but really it’s the continuation of how towns like ours are run,” she said.

Yacine Ladjici, an engineer and opposition councillor in Chevilly-Larue, was out campaigning as Maracineanu’s running mate. He said Macron needed a majority “first to address the cost of living crisis in troubled international times, but also to push for full employment and to defend republican values”.

But the spectre of a historically low turnout hangs over Sunday’s final vote. In the first round, more than 70% of people aged between 25 and 34 did not vote. On an estate in Chevilly-Larue, Bintou, 27, said she was too busy juggling work as a clinic administrator and parenting her four-year-old. “I just don’t think voting will change anything,” she said.

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