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POLITICS

A former cleaner and a piano tuner: French parliament’s fresh faces

A wave of new French MPs with more diverse profiles, including a cleaner and a blind piano tuner, are heading to parliament after legislative elections that saw President Emmanuel Macron lose his majority.

A former cleaner and a piano tuner: French parliament's fresh faces
Member of the left-wing coalition and former cleaner Rachel Keke (C) after the legislative elections (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

The centrist president’s setback came amid a surge in support for the hard left France Unbowed (LFI) and far right National Rally (RN) — the political homes of the new MPs from a working-class background who stand out in a sea of career politicians.

The freshly-elected MPs are out to make their mark on the new parliament where opposition parties will have more room to make an impact than in the previous one where Macron enjoyed a large majority.

Former cleaner Rachel Keke beat Macron’s former sports minister Roxana Maracineanu after running on a left-wing alliance ticket led by LFI’s leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon.

“I am the voice of the voiceless,” Keke said on Sunday after the results came in.

“I am a maid, I am a cleaner, security guard, care assistant, home help, I am all these invisible jobs,” she added, promising these jobs would be visible with her in the lower house parliament.

Keke made a name for herself after winning a gruelling battle for better working conditions in the Paris hotel where she cleaned.

LFI MPs supported Keke and her colleagues throughout the fight against global hotel giant Accor and have made the defence of France’s “invisible workers” a priority.

‘Average person on the street’

National Rally’s new MP Katiana Levavasseur is also a former cleaner.

She says she wants to defend “the employment of France’s unskilled workers who like me get up early in the morning to earn €11.75 an hour”.

Since taking over from her father Jean Marie as leader of the then-National Front, Marine Le Pen has sought to widen her base of support by focusing on social and economic issues.

As a consequence the party has attracted profiles from lower economic backgrounds, such as delivery driver Jorys Bovet, 29, who says he wants to fight against poverty and deindustrialisation. 

“I’ve worked since I was 16,” he told the daily local La Montagne paper.

“I know the lives of the average person on the street, and I can see that purchasing power has been decreasing in the past few years,” Bovet added.

Critics still accuse the anti-immigration National Rally of being extremist, a charge Le Pen vehemently rejects.

New RN MP Jose Beaurain, 50, also from a working-class background, is the first blind MP to enter parliament.

Beaurain used to work in a music shop as a piano tuner and is also a former bodybuilding vice-champion for France.

‘Strict setting’

Beyond a wave of working class profiles, the new parliament will also usher in the youngest-ever MPs, both 21 and from LFI — Tematai Le Gayic, elected to represent French Polynesia and law student Louis Boyard, who ran in the outskirts of Paris.

25-year-old Charles Rodwell, who says he used to write Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire’s speeches, will also be making his entrance to the Bourbon-Palace for Macron’s Ensemble (Together) coalition.

But the string of young MPs will not lower the average age of the new parliament, which stands at 48.5, only slightly lower than in 2017 when it was 48.8.

In another sign not everything has changed, some 37.26 percent of the new MPs are women, slightly less than in 2017 when 224 women were elected against the 215 this time round.

And despite the high-profile cases such as Rachel Keke, MPs from a high socio-economic background remain the rule in the new parliament.

Sociologist Etienne Ollion, professor at the Paris-based Ecole Polytechnique, says that introducing fresh profiles will not necessarily impact policy.

“We don’t produce political change by changing only the faces but keeping the relatively strict rules,” he said.

“The institution imposes itself on the individuals, they’re in a very strict setting,” Ollion added.

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POLITICS

France says all troops left Mali, ending nine-year military mission

The last soldiers belonging to France's Barkhane operation in Mali have now left the African country, the French chiefs of staff said on Monday.

France says all troops left Mali, ending nine-year military mission

French forces have been supporting Mali against insurgents for nearly a decade, but President Emmanuel Macron decided to pull out after France and the Malian junta fell out in the wake of a military takeover.

“Today at 13H00 Paris time (1100 GMT) the final contingent of the Barkhane force still on Malian territory crossed the border between Mali and Niger,” the statement said.

The army had met the “major military logistics challenge” of the pull-out “in an orderly and safe fashion”, it added.

After ties ruptured between Paris and the junta that took power in Mali in August 2020, France began to withdraw its troops in February, as jihadist violence surged in the Sahel.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Why were French soldiers in Mali?

Friction developed over the junta’s delays in restoring civilian rule and escalated when Mali brought in Russian paramilitaries — personnel described by France as “mercenaries” from the pro-Kremlin Wagner group.

‘Prevented caliphate’

Macron on Monday congratulated the military on its nine years in Mali, saying it had “prevented the establishment of a territorial caliphate, and fought against terrorists that attack local populations and threaten Europe”. 

Most high-ranking members of the “terrorist groups” had been “neutralised”, he said, adding that 59 French soldiers had died in Mali in total.

More than 2,000 civilians have been killed in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso since the start of the year, according to an AFP tally based on the findings of non-governmental organisation ACLED.

In this file photo taken on December 07, 2021 shows the French flag and France-led special operations logo for the new Task Force Takuba, a multinational military mission in sub-Saharan Africa’s troubled Sahel region. (Photo by Thomas COEX / AFP)

BACKGROUND: France announces withdrawal of troops from Mali

At its peak, France’s Barkhane mission had 5,100 troops among five Sahel allies, all former French colonies — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

The forces have provided key support in air power, troop transport and reconnaissance. France has an air base in Niger’s capital Niamey where it has deployed drones.

After the Malian pullout, the mission will have “around 2,500” troops, Barkhane commander General Laurent Michon said last month.

The reconfigured mission will emphasise “more cooperative operations,” he said.

Frontline Niger

France will keep more than 1,000 men in Niger, where a tactical group will continue to work in partnership with the Nigerien forces.

Niger is a frontline state in the fight against jihadism as the unstable region struggles with a string of military coups.

“The democratic regression in West Africa is extremely worrying,” French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told French MPs ahead of a trip to the region in July. 

“However, in spite of these events (and) the withdrawal from Mali, France will continue to help West African armies fight terrorist groups.”

Niger is one of the biggest recipients of French aid, receiving 143 million euros ($146 million) last year.

READ ALSO: France calls Mali’s exit from defence accords ‘unjustified’

The two sides will sign agreements for a French loan of 50 million euros and a grant of 20 million euros.

Niger, the world’s poorest country by the benchmark of the UN’s Human Development Index, has been badly hit by the jihadist insurgency that began in northern Mali in 2012 and then swept to neighbouring countries.

Niger is facing insurgencies both on its western border with Mali and Burkina Faso and on its south-eastern frontier with Nigeria.

More than a thousand troops will be deployed in Niger, providing air support and training, according to French sources.

French troops are also in Gabon, Ivory Coast and Senegal, as well as in the east of Africa, in Djibouti.

READ ALSO: Macron agrees to return Benin sculptures ‘without delay’

Macron in June asked the government and military chiefs “to rethink our overall presence on the African continent by the autumn.”

He called for “a presence that is less static and less exposed” and “a closer relationship” with African armed forces.

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