Rachel Keke does a little dance of joy as she arrives in front of the French National Assembly on Tuesday morning. She has turned on music on her cell phone and is asking her future colleagues to join in. Shortly thereafter, they are received at the Palais Bourbon, the seat of the French Parliament.
It was a long road for 48-year-old Keke, but she made it: The former cleaner will be a member of the National Assembly for the left-wing electoral union in the upcoming legislative period. On election night, overwhelmed by her victory, Keke said: “I am the voice of those who have no voice.” She will represent all invisible professions in parliament to make them visible.
Working in an invisible profession, Keke was herself for a long time. Born in Ivory Coast in 1974, she came to France at the age of 26 and received citizenship in 2015. For 17 years she worked as a cleaner for a subcontractor of the Accor hotel group. In the summer of 2019, she joined forces with colleagues to fight for better working conditions, supported by the CGT union.
The cleaning ladies at the Ibis Batignolles hotel in northern Paris became famous for not giving up despite the odds. Their labor dispute lasted 22 months, of which the women went on strike for eight months. In the end, they were able to reach an agreement with Accor and the subcontractor in which almost all of their demands were met: higher pay, fewer rooms that have to be cleaned per hour, timekeeping so that no more unpaid overtime is worked.
In the almost two years that the industrial action has lasted, Keke has become the face and mouthpiece of her colleagues, many of whom, like her, are from other countries. In an interview she once said: “I’m not a political person, but circumstances force us to do politics.”
She describes herself as a “fighter”. At events, Keke, who is a mother of five children, warms up the audience with a firm, loud voice. When the left-wing party alliance meets for the first time on May 7, the whole room stands and cheers at the end of her speech. “We are the system relevant ones,” Keke called out beforehand. “It is we who make France. If we don’t work, everything stops.” It’s time to move into parliament and have a say in the relevant laws.
However, it was not certain that she would actually win. In her constituency in the Val-de-Marne department, she ran against President Emmanuel Macron’s former sports minister, Roxana Maracineanu. In the end, 177 votes made the difference: Keke won with this narrow lead.
On the evening of the election, she did not only address cleaning staff, nursing staff and people from the security service. But she also turned to the youth in her neighborhood who no longer believed in France. “We will work together to show these young people a different picture of France,” announced Keke.