“I’m a bit intimidated,” the head of Chevilly-Larue’s Pasteur nursery school admits with a nervous laugh. She is meeting with Rachel Keke, a member of the National Assembly of France for the left-wing movement France Insoumise. During the next two hours, Keke speaks with the employees at Pasteur about the issues they face: understaffing, low pay, ever longer hours — the usual stuff of a meeting between an elected official and her constituents. But one thing set Keke apart from ordinary politicians: the way she uses her own experience to connect with workers’ problems.
“When I was a chambermaid,” Keke told the nursery staff, “I liked what I was doing, but it didn’t mean I had to let myself be trampled on.”
“You are essential workers,” she reminded her audience. “You have to fight.”
Keke spoke from experience. It was through her struggles, including as a leader of a major Paris housekeepers’ strike, that last year Keke made her entry into the National Assembly. Using her new influence as an MP, she continued in the halls of parliament the fight she had once led in hotel hallways.
The daughter of a bus driver and a clothes vendor, Keke arrived in France after emigrating from the Ivory Coast in 2000 and entered the hotel industry three years later as a housekeeper. In summer 2019, grappling with grueling work conditions and low pay, thirty-two housekeepers in a hotel in northwest Paris launched a strike, of which Keke became the spokesperson. After a twenty-two-month strike — the longest in the sector’s history — they finally won out. The agreement signed in May 2021 with Accor, Europe’s largest hotel chain, marked a resounding victory, with the concession of nearly all the strikers’ demands.
Keke’s fight at the Ibis Batignolles won many headlines. Yet despite her newly acquired national profile as a leading figure of the working class, she swiftly dismissed the idea of running for office. “I certainly don’t want to go into politics,” she confessed to a journalist in July 2021. “I’m a bit afraid I’d be exploited for political purposes.” However, by winter, she had changed her mind. In early 2022, while visiting her family in the Ivory Coast, her phone lit up. Éric Coquerel, a France Insoumise MP and member of presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s inner circle, texted her requesting that she join Mélenchon’s presidential campaign. Upon returning to France, Keke called Coquerel: she was ready to support the left-winger. And with that phone call, Keke was propelled into the presidential race in full swing. On March 20, speaking to a crowd of tens of thousands of France Insoumise sympathizers at a rally, she recounted her experiences as a housekeeper, presenting Mélenchon’s campaign as an extension of her past struggle for workers’ rights.
Becoming an MP
Mélenchon’s narrow defeat in the first round of presidential contest last April 10 — falling just 1 point short of beating Marine Le Pen into the runoff election — concluded Keke’s first involvement in an electoral campaign. With the presidency now out of reach, France Insoumise turned its eyes toward the upcoming legislative elections, scheduled for June.
In late April, Keke received a call from a local France Insoumise official asking her to be their candidate in the district. The proposal left Keke stunned. “Me? Are you sure I can be an MP?” she recalled asking him. “I thought politics was for people with a ‘bac+5’ [five years of postsecondary education].” The local official reassured her, pointing to her role as spokesperson of the housekeepers of the Ibis Batignolles as proof that she could lead.
His words gave her “the strength to run” and pushed her to embark on a campaign to become the representative of the 7th District of the Val-de-Marne, a historically right-wing constituency located in Paris’s suburbs. With both Mélenchon and neoliberal president Emmanuel Macron achieving a strong showing in this district, the legislative elections were viewed as a toss-up between a left-wing candidate and a Macron-backed one. Certain members of France Insoumise, enthused by the prospect of counting Keke among their ranks at the National Assembly, pushed for her to run in an easier contest in staunchly pro-Mélenchon Seine-Saint-Denis, a working-class suburb of Paris. However, Keke, buoyed by a strong network of local activists, opted to remain in the Val-de-Marne constituency.
Within this competitive district, her working-class background enabled her to connect with voters. “She’s an extremely approachable person,” explained Olivier Guillotin, her former campaign coordinator. With her fame stemming from her time as a housekeeper rather than party activism, she was better equipped to connect with voters beyond France Insoumise sympathizers, noted Guillotin.
Keke easily moved forward to the runoff election, leading her Macron-backed opponent, former minister Roxana Maracineanu, by a 13-point lead in the first round. However, with her opponent relying on the support of conservative voters whose candidate failed to access the runoff election, Keke faced an uphill battle. On June 19, as the vote tallies from the different polling stations trickled in, the tension was palpable. Soon, the results were clear: Keke had edged out her opponent by a two-hundred-vote margin.
Embracing and thanking her team, Keke shed tears of joy. “If you’re a garbage collector, if you’re a security guard, if you’re a domestic worker, don’t think you can’t be an MP,” Keke exclaimed in front of the crowd of campaigners gathered to celebrate her win. “The National Assembly is ours!”
Making Parliament Ours
Her first appearance in parliament was met with euphoric reactions from other MPs. “She’s the embodiment of so many of the fights that we have embraced,” exclaimed Danielle Simonnet, representative of one Paris constituency. Her speeches, intertwining personal experiences and scathing criticism of the government, have widely circulated on social media, with certain punchlines of hers even appearing on protest signs. Left-wing daily Libération dubbed her ability to invoke personal experiences “a deadly weapon.” In her first speech in a plenary session of the National Assembly, she drew on her own experience to insist on the need to raise the minimum wage. “I’d like to know who, in this assembly, has earned €800 [per month]? €900? €1000?” she asked, implicitly referring to her own wages as a housekeeper.
More recently, as President Macron ramped up his efforts to raise the retirement age to sixty-four despite the biggest protests in a decade, she drew on her own working experience to castigate the legislation. “You don’t understand how difficult some jobs are,” Keke insisted, in a comment aimed at the MPs who wanted to increase the retirement age. “You don’t understand because you don’t live through it. . . . You have no right to put on their knees those who keep the country on its feet.”
If Keke’s background has made her an icon of the French left, her working-class roots have also made her a target of attacks from the Right. Even when she was on the picket line, commentators accused Keke of being manipulated by unions and left-wing political parties, comments that have intensified now that she has joined France Insoumise. While Keke ran for parliament, Sophie de Ravinel, a journalist at right-wing daily Le Figaro, repeatedly asked a member of France Inousmise’s leadership whether the left-wing movement had provided Keke any “training.” Implicit in her line of questioning was a concern — founded on classist sentiment — that Keke’s lack of higher education prevented her from properly conducting her work as a legislator. Similarly, upon Keke’s arrival in the National Assembly, the founder of far-right media outlet Le Causeur, Elisabeth Lévy, commented, “At least she isn’t in a boubou [robe worn in various parts of Africa].”
Asked about these attacks, Keke answered in a defiant tone that “life is a struggle.” “If you don’t want to be crushed, despite what’s said [in the media],” Keke explained, “you have to stand up for yourself.”
The story of Keke constitutes proof that building bridges between workers’ movements and electoral politics is a winning strategy. As her example suggests, elected officials with working-class roots can connect with voters in ways their upper-class counterparts cannot. Yet representatives like Keke remain outliers.
The Boétie Institute, a progressive think tank affiliated with France Insoumise and led by Mélenchon, recently unveiled a program aimed at providing training to party activists. According to a France Insoumise official familiar with the institute’s activities, the program will help train activists from diverse backgrounds with the goal of widening the pool of future election candidates. While the program remains in its infancy, it holds the promise of building upon Rachel Keke’s work by training a new generation of elected officials with working-class roots.