Former hotel housekeeper aims to give French workers a voice

A former hotel housekeeper who fought for the rights of her co-workers has become a symbol of the recent revival of France’s left, which is expected to emerge as the main opposition force in the French Parliament to President Emmanuel Macron’s government.

Rachel Kéké, 48, is poised to win election as a lawmaker when France holds the decisive second round of parliamentary elections on Sunday. She placed first in her district with more than 37% of the vote in the election’s first round. Her nearest rival, Macron’s former sports minister, Roxana Maracineanu, received less than 24%.

Macron’s centrist alliance is projected to win the most number of seats in the National Assembly, but it could fall short of securing an absolute majority. In that case, a new coalition composed of the hard left, the Socialists and the Greens could make Macron’s political life harder since the National Assembly is key to voting in laws.

Kéké, a Black mother of five who is from the Ivory Coast and settled in France 20 years ago, appeared 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 Sunday.

Kéké, who acquired French citizenship in 2015, knows she represents more than the face of her own campaign. If she wins a place in a Parliament dominated by white men, many of them holding jobs in senior management, it could represent a turning point in the National Assembly reflecting a more diverse cross-section of the French population.

“I am proud to tell Black women that anything is possible,” she told the Associated Press.

Kéké worked as a hotel chambermaid for more than 15 years and eventually climbed the ladder to next job grade, becoming a governess who managed teams of cleaners. But after she started working for a hotel in northwest Paris, she noticed how the demands of cleaning hotel rooms threatened the physical and mental health of the people she supervised.

She thinks “it’s time” for essential workers to have a voice in Parliament. “Most of the deputies don’t know the worth of essential workers who are suffering,” said the candidate, who has repetitive motion tendonitis in her arm because of her cleaning work and still manages hotel housekeepers.

In 2019, along with around 20 chambermaids who were mostly migrant women from sub-Saharan Africa, Kéké fought French hotel giant Accor to obtain better work and pay conditions. She led a 22-month, crowdfunded strike that ended with a salary increase.

The hotel workers’ grueling but successful battle inspired many. Drafted by hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party, Kéké agreed to run in the parliamentary race “to be the voice of the voiceless.”

“People who take public transportation at 4 a.m. are mostly migrants. I stand for them, too,” she said.

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

If elected, Kéké would be in position to support one of the key items on the coalition’s platform: increasing France’s 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 swimming world champion who served in Macron’s government, thinks.

Campaigning Thursday in Thiais, a farmer’s market town in the Paris suburbs, she energetically tried to convince often skeptical residents of the importance of Sunday’s vote. According to opinion polls, voters from the traditional right are expected to widely support Macron’s candidates in places where their own party didn’t qualify for the second round.

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

Born in Romania, Maracineanu arrived in France with her family in 1984 and was naturalized French 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 won’t be heading to the National Assembly as a world champion, and Mrs. Kéké won’t go as a cleaning lady,” she said. “You go to the National Assembly to be an MP. Personal trajectories are of course interesting and they’re worth talking about but ... the election is about an agenda.”

Only one of them will be elected Sunday.

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

One unpredictable factor for both camps: the expected low turnout.

In the first round, less than half of voters went to the polls, echoing disillusion with Macron, the establishment and everyday politics expressed by many.

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