177. This is the number of votes that separated Rachel Kéké from her losing opponent, Emmanuel Macron’s former sports minister Roxana Maracineanu, in Sunday’s second round of legislative elections. In a duel between David and Goliath, the outsider finally won in the 7th constituency of Val-de-Marne, with 50.3% of the vote. A few days before the election, we spoke to this Franco-Ivorian woman who, at 48, wears many hats*.
In addition to her job as a chambermaid and the parental obligations involved in the education of five children, Kéké , who lives in Chevilly-Larue, near Paris, threw herself into the political arena on 19 May, in the legislative race that took place on 12 and 19 June. “I am a warrior. I have already fought battles. I’m ready for this one,” she says over the phone, from the steps of her youngest daughter’s middle school, where she has an appointment.
Selected by La France insoumise – LFI (Rebellious France), Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party, to represent la Nouvelle Union populaire écologique et sociale – NUPES (New Popular Ecological and Social Union), the left-wing coalition, in the 7th constituency of the Paris suburb Val-de-Marne, this civil society representative is not unknown to the public.
From 2019 and 2021, she was the voice and face of the chambermaids of the Ibis Batignolles hotel, located in Paris’ 17th arrondissement (district). These subcontracted employees became famous in France for having led the longest strike in the hotel industry’s history.
“Subcontracting is too often used to deprive workers of their rights. Our working conditions were so bad that they prompted us to join a union and go on strike,” Kéké recalls, as the workers’ former spokesperson. The struggle lasted a record 22 months. “The unions had warned us: ‘A group like Accor does not give in easily’. We expected to have to fight for a few weeks or a few months”, she says with a laugh.
In the end, it took almost two years before they won their case. And no matter how tired she was, how much she was scorned, intimidated and insulted, Rachel Kéké did not give in. “I have seen everything in this struggle. We were infantilised, humiliated and insulted. We often had doubts, but we never gave up”. It must be said that, for Kéké , giving up is not an option. “I got it from my mother,” she says, remembering the woman who, in order to feed her seven children, sold clothes at the Adjamé market, in Abobo.
It was in this commune in northern Abidjan that Rachel Kéké grew up and later gave birth to her eldest son, before moving to Paris at the age of 26. She says she remembers the warmth and tolerance of her native neighbourhood, where “Ivorians, Malians, Senegalese, Guineans, Catholics and Muslims” lived together. And the fighting spirit, “obligatory” for a family of modest means.
The voice of the invisible
This personal heritage is something the LFI MP wants to put at the service of the “essential”. These “invisible” women and men who “held France up” with their hard work while the whole country was locked down during the coronavirus pandemic. Just before her election to parliament, Kéké told us she wanted to be the voice of “cleaning ladies, dustmen, home helpers, badly paid teachers, security guards…”. “Politicians don’t know how we live. If we are not in the National Assembly to plead our own cause, who will?” asks the woman who is keen to obtain “a meeting with the labour minister”.
“What prevails in certain neighbourhoods – beyond ‘despair’ – is a problem of trust. The people have the sense of being systematically betrayed by those they elect”, says Hadi Issahnane, elected LFI mayor of Chevilly-Larue and member of Kéké ’s campaign team. “The best way to restore trust is to give responsibilities to people who do not have a political career plan. Like Rachel. It’s the struggles she’s faced that have gotten her where she is.”
Although she readily admits that the idea of entering politics seemed “strange” at first, Kéké assures us that the challenge “does not scare her”. Hotel industry giants, MPs, journalists who are sometimes “scornful”… Nobody has managed to intimidate her. “She speaks to a CEO of a multinational company the same way she would with a passer-by,” Mayor Issahnane says. “[It’s a very good thing] if it makes the columns of the Palais Bourbon shake,” said LFI MP Alexis Corbière in early May on the parliamentary TV channel (LCP) about Kéké ’s potential effect on the National Assembly. The journalist then asked the LFI leader if Rachel Kéké had “been trained”, in the event she made it to the lower house of parliament.
There have been and there will always be some class reflexes, people who will say: ‘She’s a chambermaid, does she know what a draft of a proposed law is?’
Corbière responded in an ironic tone: “It [may be] contemptuous, but she’s the one making a fool of herself. Do they want to train me so I can learn the price of a kilo of rice?”
“There have been and there will always be some class reflexes, people who will say: ‘She’s a chambermaid, does she know what a draft of a proposed law is?’” says Mayor Hadi. “But Rachel talks about concrete things: pay, school, the suffering of the people at the bottom. She is capable of reaching out to the working classes, the abstentionists and all those who do not feel represented”.
‘Proud to be Ivorian’
Kéké says she draws her outspokenness, once again, from her Ivorian roots. “My family is from the Bété ethnic group. For us, when it’s blue, it’s blue, when it’s red, it’s red. No hypocrisy: we say what we mean and we don’t beat around the bush,” she says. “I have a lot of admiration for women like former first lady Simone Gbagbo [wife of President Laurent Gbagbo, of Bété origin]; she is not afraid, she assumes her responsibilities”, Kéké says.
Drawing on her origins or her struggles as an activist and single parent, Kéké ’s determination has led to her being called to the rescue by many social movements, from Marseille to Rotterdam, via Geneva and Belgium. But with political exposure comes a few blows, she predicts. “I expect to be attacked, but I’m used to it. When you’re Black and a chambermaid, you know how to defend yourself,” she says proudly, referring to the racist insults she received from certain hotel guests, about which her managers “never did anything”.
Is she afraid of xenophobes and those who are constantly raising the issue of French identity and the fear of the “great replacement”? “That’s behind us”, the new MP wants to believe. “Éric Zemmour constructed his whole narrative around immigration and he [only] got 7% in the presidential elections. Le Pen senior never managed to get elected and, for the moment, neither has his daughter. Today, France must be reconciled [so that we can] live together,” she says.
To do this, Kéké intends to bring “a little more diversity to the National Assembly and take the struggles we’ve waged at the door of the Ibis hotel to parliament”, all without renouncing her identity. “I am proud to be Ivorian and I am proud to be Black. I am proud to be French too. And it is here that I will fight until I die.” From now on, Rachel Kéké will be able to add another feather to her cap, and it’s not a tiny one: honoured member of parliament.
(*) This article was originally published in Jeune Afrique on 26 May 2022, before Rachel Kéké was elected on Sunday, 19 June.
Understand Africa's tomorrow... today
We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.View subscription options