“It’s the struggle that gives us force,” Keke said to the applause of the workers pushing for wage hikes. “If we abandon the struggle, they’ll stay in power,” she continued, before pausing and emphasizing each of the words again, one of her signature rhetorical traits. “If we abandon the struggle, they’ll stay in power!”
Coming from one of the leaders of a victorious 22-month-long strike that pitted a group of largely African immigrant women housekeepers against one of the world’s largest hotel chains, the words resonated—and it’s why the crowd was transfixed on Keke throughout her speech.
Now the Franco-Ivorian housekeeper is hoping to take the struggle to another level.
This month, Keke is running for a seat in the National Assembly under the banner of France’s once-unthinkable left unity coalition, the Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale or NUPES, which brings together La France Insoumise (LFI), Europe Ecology–The Greens (EELV), the French Communist Party (PCF), and the Socialist Party (PS). Ahead of the two-round vote, on June 12 and June 19, polls show the NUPES running neck-and-neck with Emmanuel Macron’s coalition, with an outside chance at being able to form a parliamentary majority and force the president into a rare power-sharing scenario known as cohabitation. For much of Macron’s presidency, these parties have squabbled over their differences and sought to outmaneuver each other in a bid for hegemony on the left, but LFI candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s strong result in April’s presidential election coupled with an opportunity to win scores of seats in the new legislative session opened the doors to a broad alliance.
As part of its ambitions to shake up the French political system and return power to citizens, the NUPES coalition is throwing its support behind a handful of candidates who lack formal experience as elected officials and come from outside the political system.
For Keke, her lack of formal experience—and her class background—are sources of pride. “You don’t need a masters’ degree or a degree from Sciences Po [an elite French university] to be in the National Assembly—even a worker can be in the National Assembly,” she told me as a familiar left-wing protest song rang out on repeat from the portable speaker system. “Housekeepers, cleaners, supermarket workers, health aides, teachers, all of us in these low-paid jobs need to be present in the National Assembly.… we’re the ones who make France run.”
In France, decisions over who gets to run for what office and in which location are almost always made behind closed doors. While the Socialists and Greens have experimented with open presidential primaries in recent years, major political parties don’t let members vote over candidates for the legislative elections—and in the case of the NUPES, a sweeping intraparty alliance, the final list was subject to complex horse-trading. During two weeks of talks at the Paris headquarters of La France Insoumise, the left-populist party that set the conditions for negotiations, each coalition partner was pushing for the ability to run their preferred candidates in their preferred legislative districts.
Much of this process was opaque and resulted in candidacies in key districts going to seasoned politicians and trusted party cadre, but it didn’t stop the coalition from supporting some candidates, like Keke, who don’t have the typical French political pedigree.
In a district that includes much of the midsize eastern city of Besançon, the coalition is also backing Stéphane Ravacley, a 52-year-old baker who made headlines last year when he went on a successful 10-day hunger strike to reverse the planned deportation of a young apprentice from Guinea. In a largely rural district in the west of Brittany, the alliance has backed Youenn Le Flao, a 58-year-old postal worker, union official, and local activist with the alter-globalization group Attac. Meanwhile, in the southern suburbs of Rouen, in Normandy, the coalition has gotten behind Alma Dufour, a 32-year-old best known for leading the Friends of the Earth’s campaign against overconsumption, which helped force Amazon to back out of a couple of proposed warehouses.
As it aims to tap into Mélenchon’s appeal in urban and suburban working-class areas, the coalition is turning to local activists to get the job done. Abdelkader Lahmar, a high school economics teacher, is running for the National Assembly in the suburbs of Lyon. And in the north of Marseille, the NUPES has turned to taxi-driver Sébastien Delogu and radiographer Mohamed Bensaada.
A member of the Syndicat des Quartiers Populaires de Marseille, a group that focuses on local issues like housing, policing, and crime, Bensaada joined La France Insoumise in 2017 and has been active ever since. “This campaign is a continuation of my work as an activist,” he told me over the phone as he was handing out flyers and knocking on doors alongside volunteers.
Bensaada said the coalition’s ideological center of gravity and anchoring in diverse working-class neighborhoods distinguishes it from France’s most recent left unity pact—the so-called “plural left,” which saw the Socialists, Greens, and Communists join forces under Prime Minister Lionel Jospin from 1997 to 2002, governing in cohabitation with President Jacques Chirac.
“The NUPES is like the ‘plural left’ but revisited from below, with a real sense of momentum and not just an accord between machines,” he told me. “That’s what we’re counting on [for the legislatives]. We’re hoping for another mobilization over the themes that Mélenchon put forward in the presidential campaign.”
As they call on voters to elect Mélenchon as prime minister—an unconventional strategy to boost turnout—Bensaada and many other left unity candidates are focusing on the same issues the Insoumise leader did in his presidential campaign: a hike in the minimum wage, a price cap on essential goods to fight inflation, and reinvestment in public services like health and education.
Bensaada conceded that the big unknown is turnout. Voter participation will almost certainly drop off when compared to the presidential election, but the goal is to limit the drop by as much as possible. (In 2017, for instance, deflated participation levels and left-wing division helped pave the way for Macron’s party to capture both seats in the north of Marseille, even though they’re seen as winnable for the left.) “It’s the key, of course,” he said. “Higher turnout means more voters from working-class neighborhoods.”
Despite all the optimism and influx of new candidates, critics say the coalition isn’t as representative of its electorate as it should be. Like all the other major legislative coalitions, middle-class professionals account for a disproportionate share of NUPES candidates. Despite the presence of Keke and others, just 7 percent of the alliance’s candidates fit the two census categories typically used in France to refer to the working class—employés (service-sector workers) and ouvriers (manual laborers)—though these two categories make up 47 percent of the country’s working population.
Moreover, while it’s a sensitive question in France, where the state does not collect data on people’s racial or religious backgrounds, Omar Slaouti, an anti-racist activist and city councilor from the Parisian suburb of Argenteuil, told me the coalition doesn’t sufficiently resemble the diverse set of voters it’s trying to win over. “To put things bluntly, there aren’t enough racial minorities—Blacks and Arabs—given their representation in France and their political engagements,” said Slaouti, who is also a member of the group On S’en Mêle, or “It’s Our Business Too,” a nationwide network of community activists who endorsed Mélenchon’s presidential bid and called on the NUPES to back a set of candidates, though ultimately only Abdelkader Lahmar won the coalition’s blessing. “We have certain categories of the population that are put aside because of their racial condition…and social condition.”
Many have criticized the situation in Seine-Saint-Denis, a low-income suburban département of Paris where immigrants make up a third of the population, but aren’t as well-represented on the NUPES slate of candidates.
Slaouti pinned the blame on “structural racism” in France that he said “goes beyond the political parties.” But he also noted that parties are skeptical about relinquishing power to candidates who insist on maintaining some degree of autonomy from the parties that endorse them—a phenomenon amplified by the history of centralized state power in France and the structure of the country’s political parties.
Kévin Vacher knows about these challenges firsthand. The 31-year-old housing activist from Marseille declared his campaign for the National Assembly months in advance and began rallying local support before asking for parties to support him—though in the end, the gamble didn’t pay off: The NUPES endorsed Manuel Bompard, a prominent figure from Mélenchon’s inner circle, even though he didn’t live in the city. Vacher stepped aside. According to Vacher, negotiators from La France Insoumise suggested they wanted a candidate loyal to the party line—even if it meant bringing in someone from elsewhere.
Bompard is just one of many candidates to engage in what the French call parachutage, or parachuting, a common practice that spans the political spectrum. (Mélenchon himself relocated to the Mediterranean port city to run for the very same seat in the National Assembly in 2017.)
“They have a very classic republican vision that views the parliamentarian as a representative of the nation,” Vacher told me of La France Insoumise. “This is true constitutionally, but there’s an ambiguity there.… The nation is also made up of different territories, and it’s why legislators are elected from territories, which wasn’t always the case.”
While the debate around parachuting is unlikely to be settled soon, Vacher is proud to have helped push the NUPES to back a proposal to enshrine a constitutional right to decent and accessible housing, and he’s now calling for a law that would force political parties to endorse a certain share of candidates from working-class backgrounds in elections. France already has a similar measure for gender parity, and Vacher said there’s no reason it shouldn’t be extended—that way, there’ll be even more Rachel Kekes five years from now.
In the meantime, Vacher said he still hopes the NUPES wins a majority of seats and form a government. However messy the process was internally, the demand on the ground is there.
“Unity between the left and the Greens around a program of rupture is something we defended throughout the campaign,” he said. “And despite everything, we think winning a majority in the National Assembly would change a lot of people’s lives. That’s the priority.”