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Former hotel keeper wants to give French workers a voice

FRESNES, FRANCE – A former hotel keeper who fought for the rights of her colleagues has become a symbol of France’s recent resurgence of the left, which is expected to emerge as the main opposition force in the French parliament against the government of President Emmanuel Macron.

Rachel Keke, 48, is on the brink of winning the election as legislator when France holds the decisive second round of parliamentary elections on Sunday. She finished first in her district with over 37% of the vote in the first round of the election. Her closest rival, Macron’s former sports minister, Roxana Maracineanu, got less than 24%.

Macron’s centrist alliance is expected to win the most seats in the National Assembly, but they cannot achieve an absolute majority. In that case, a new coalition composed of the far left, the Socialists and the Greens could make Macron’s political life more difficult, as the National Assembly is the key to voting in laws.

Keke, a black mother of five who hails from Côte d’Ivoire and settled in France 20 years ago, seemed confident this week while visiting Fresnes, a suburb southeast of Paris, to hand out flyers near a primary school and encourage people to vote for her on Sunday.

Keke, who acquired French citizenship in 2015, knows she represents more than the face of her own campaign. If she wins a seat in a parliament dominated by white men, many of whom hold senior management jobs, it could be a turning point in the National Assembly to reflect a more diverse cross-section of the French population.

“I’m proud to tell black women that anything is possible,” she told the Associated Press.

Election posters of presidential candidate Roxana Maracineanu and Rachel Keke can be seen on June 16, 2022 in Thiais, south of Paris. Election posters of presidential candidate Roxana Maracineanu and Rachel Keke can be seen on June 16, 2022 in Thiais, south of Paris.

Keke worked as a chambermaid in a hotel for over 15 years and eventually climbed the ladder to the next job grade and became a governess directing teams of cleaners. But after she started working for a hotel in northwestern Paris, she noticed how the demands of cleaning hotel rooms threatened the physical and mental health of the people she supervised.

She believes it is “time” for essential workers to have a voice in parliament. “Most delegates don’t know the value of essential workers who suffer,” said the candidate, who has recurrent tendonitis in her arm from cleaning jobs and still runs the hotel’s housekeeper.

In 2019, Keke, along with about 20 chambermaids, mostly migrant women from sub-Saharan Africa, fought against French hotel giant Accor to get better working and pay conditions. She led a 22-month crowdfunded strike that ended with a pay raise.

The grueling but successful struggle of the hotel workers inspired many. Keke, drafted by far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon’s party, agreed to join the parliamentary race “to be the voice of the voiceless”.

“People who take public transport at 4 a.m. are mostly migrants. I’m in front of them too,” she said.

She joined Melechon’s party, France Unbowed, during the presidential campaign that culminated in Macron’s reelection in May, and then became part of the New Popular Ecological and Social Union, the left-wing coalition that seeks to increase the president’s power in the country. trying to curb parliament.

If elected, Keke would be able to back one of the key points on the coalition’s platform: raising the French monthly minimum wage from about 1,300 ($1,361) to 1,500 euros ($1,570).

She claimed her rival “doesn’t stand a chance.” That’s not what Maracineanu, 47, the former world swimming champion who was in Macron’s government, thinks.

Supporters of left-wing leader Jean-Luc Melenchon prepare election posters and glue for the second round of parliamentary elections in Strasbourg, eastern France, June 14, 2022. Supporters of left-wing leader Jean-Luc Melenchon prepare election posters and glue for the second round of parliamentary elections in Strasbourg, eastern France, June 14, 2022.

She campaigned Thursday in Thiais, a farmers’ market town on the outskirts of Paris, energetically trying to convince the often skeptical residents of the importance of Sunday’s vote. Opinion polls suggest that voters from the traditional right are expected to broadly support Macron’s candidates in places where their own party failed to qualify for the runoff.

“There are (voters) who are interested in the election from a national point of view. They want Emmanuel Macron and the majority to be able to rule,” Maracineanu said. “Some others are clearly against Jean-Luc Melenchon.”

Born in Romania, Maracineanu arrived in France in 1984 with her family and was naturalized as a French citizen seven years later at the age of 16. She became the first world champion in French swimming history and silver medalist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

“I’m not going to the National Assembly as a world champion, and Mrs. Keke won’t be going as a cleaning lady,” she said. “You go to the National Assembly to become a Member of Parliament. Personal trajectories are of course interesting and worth talking about, but… the election is about an agenda.”

Only one of them will be elected on Sunday.

The first round of the election gave a major boost to the left-wing coalition, which ended neck and neck with Macron’s alliance at the national level. The French president needs a clear, if not absolute, majority to implement his agenda, which includes tax cuts and raising the retirement age.

An unpredictable factor for both sides: the expected low turnout.

Less than half of voters went to the polls in the first round, echoing the disillusionment with Macron, the establishment and everyday politics expressed by many.

“I come from a country where you couldn’t vote or if you did it was useless, and it was always the same candidate who was elected under the Romanian dictatorship before 1989. I know how important a democratic ritual is and that’s what I try to remind people of it,” Maracineanu said.

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