When we encountered Rachel Keke in March in the crowd of the Paris general strike, she stood on a podium in her tricolour elected representative’s sash, taking questions from journalists and protesters, with other members of La France Insoumise (“France Unbowed”) the leftwing political party for which she is an MP.
When we meet again in July at the headquarters of the United Voices of the World (UVW) trade union in Bethnal Green, London, the 49-year-old Franco-Ivoirienne is in civilian clothing and appears at ease among the outsourced migrant cleaners and trade unionists that have come to see her speak. She actively seeks out those currently on strike to offer them messages of solidarity and encourages francophone members of the meeting to address her with the informal “tu”, rather than the formal “vous”.
She is here at the invitation of UVW because they are currently fighting for the rights of outsourced cleaners in the UK. Before she became an MP in France, Keke led a historic struggle of outsourced cleaners at the Ibis hotel in Batignolles, Paris, that lasted 22 months (eight of strike action and 14 of partial activity). The strike resulted in significant improvements in conditions for workers as well as a pay increase of between €250 and €500 a month.
Keke comes to the UK with practical advice on how to win; “What I want to tell you here is that striking is not easy, striking is really hard. You are always on the picket line. You are always organising and that also means at Christmas. We spent two Christmases on picket lines, with our kids in the rain. That’s what striking is like.”
Part of what made the struggle so difficult is that “particularly in the hotel sector, particularly when in outsourced businesses”, many of the unions claiming to protect workers are, in Keke’s opinion, “corrupt”. Keke’s branch of the CGT union lost ten members to other unions, which she says came and tried to poach members and pacify the striking workers.
She adds, as though not to discourage her audience, that striking can also be joyous. As well as striking at the Ibis hotel they worked at, she and her colleagues also picketed the luxury hotels of the Accor group that owned the Ibis, where the managers would look “out the window and wonder, ‘where do these women get the strength?’. What we were doing on the picket was playing football, doing our hair together, dancing and getting energy.”
Keke entered France’s parliament, the National Assembly, in June 2022, after being approached by La France Insoumise MPs François Ruffin and Éric Coquerel, who supported her strike.
From picket line to parliament
For her, this was just the next step in the struggle.
She was thrust to prominence during the recent protests against President Macron’s pension reform – which raised the retirement from 62 to 64. She used her position as one of the few members of the National Assembly with experience of both strikes and punishing labour, to deliver viral speeches about the indignities suffered by workers and to excoriate the government.
In November 2022, her party introduced a bill to raise the minimum wage, but it was voted down by Macronists and Republicans.
“They are seriously disconnected”, she tells Novara Media. “They don’t know how much a baguette costs, because they don’t buy their own bread! They would go to the boulangerie and not know the price! In the National Assembly they are in their own world, so when a chambermaid arrives, or a taxi driver like Sébastien Delogu [MP from Marseille], or a nurse like Caroline Fiat [MP from Eastern France] arrives, it disturbs them. Why does it disturb them? Because they feel criticised by the people, because we are not of their world.”
The movement against pension reform that saw Keke garner a profile has faltered after the reform was forced through earlier this year, but she says that the battle is not lost. The reform will kick in in September, and she believes this presents an opportunity to revive the movement. “I can’t say that we have lost, because when we return in September, we can relaunch the movement and the unions can commit themselves afresh.”
At the Ibis hotel, the cleaners’ strike was continuous. The contrastingly stop/start dynamic of the strike days called by the leadership of the union coalition against the pension reform has harmed the movement, Keke believes. “After 1 May, the date that they gave for the next protest was 6 June and that broke it. You can’t wage a struggle just from time to time. It’s discouraging and breaks things apart.”
Centrists attack the left
As well as struggling in the streets, Keke and her colleagues are under fire in the National Assembly. The recent media strategy of the ruling Renaissance party has been to tighten the “Republican Arc” of morally legitimate parties to exclude La France Insoumise, presenting them as dangerous extremists responsible for the riots that followed the killing of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk by police during a traffic stop in the Paris suburb of Nanterre in July.
The right, from the Macronists to the far-right Rassemblement National (RN), have begun to refer to La France Insoumise as La France Incendiaire – “Incendiary France”, or “France of firestarters”. Ironically however, the most recent scandal involving political violence was the burning down of the house of an La France Insoumise activist in Vosges by far-right activists.
Personalising the situation around her party leader in the way that her colleagues often do, Keke warns that “people must not be taken in by the media in their demonisation of Mélenchon, Jean Luc Mélenchon is not the problem in this country”.
“When Jean Luc Mélenchon said that police kill, what did they say? They said that [he] doesn’t like the police, that he is demonising the police,” says Keke. “Today a policeman kills the young Nael, and the youths revolt because they are tired of being killed like that for nothing, and so they ask us, ‘Why don’t you call for calm?’ We said, ‘No. We don’t call for calm, we call for justice’ … They have made a mess and asked us to clean it up, but we won’t.”
By contrast, Keke says, Renaissance have a more friendly attitude towards the far right.
“Macronists use the media to demonise La France Insoumise and to raise up the Rassemblement National (RN). Why do they want to raise up the RN? Because Macron does not have a majority in the National Assembly and so at the moment Macron votes alongside the RN. They need to strengthen the RN, I don’t think their ideal is to deliver them to power in four years, but that’s what we can see happening”.
“It is Jean Luc Mélenchon and his MPs who represent the people’s voice, who defend the people … We say we must provide funds for the quartiers populaires [working class neighbourhoods around cities] and they do not listen. Yet, when youths rise up, that’s when it becomes an issue?”
The working class bloc in the French parliament is small, and Keke argues, insufficient. “I’m with Sébastien [Delogu], I’m with Caroline Fiat, I’m with Mathilde Hignet who was an agricultural labourer, but that is not enough, it is not enough, so I think La France Insoumise would do well to open the doors to the people to let them into the National Assembly.”