Visions of France collide as cleaner faces ex-minister in election runoff

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Rachel Keke, candidate of the left-wing coalition NUPES, poses in front of her campaign poster in Thiais
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By Layli Foroudi

THIAIS, France (Reuters) - Having tasted victory in leading a strike at a Paris hotel, cleaner Rachel Keke is now running for parliament with a message that is resonating with local voters: France needs more lawmakers who've done the sort of jobs that she has.

Keke, a political newcomer, represents the broad leftwing alliance led by radical Jean-Luc Melenchon that has risen to stand neck-and-neck with the centrist camp of recently re-elected President Emmanuel Macron.

"The people at the top who are at the National Assembly don't know ... what our lives are like," she told Reuters as she campaigned in her Val-de-Marne constituency south of Paris, where she defeated the centrist candidate by 15 percentage points in last Sunday's first-round vote.

"That is why there is no concrete action for these workers, that is why there is too much suffering."

Keke's challenge – and her conviction that more workers with jobs that "hold the country together" such as care assistants, security guards and cleaners should become MPs – is the kind that a president often accused of being detached from voters' day-to-day realities is facing across France.

While polls still see Macron's group winning more seats than any other bloc, the rejuvenated left threatens his hopes of securing an absolute parliamentary majority. Without that, the centrists would be forced to negotiate a government deal with other parties or legislate reforms on a case-by-case basis.

Such deals are common in many other countries, but France has no recent experience of them in government.

"IT'S LIKE BEING A SOLDIER"

In Sunday's runoff, Keke will again face the candidate for Macron's group, former sports minister Roxana Maracineanu. Both women know that the turnout in a constituency with an often high abstention could play a crucial role in who wins.

Siradou Bidanessy, a 30-year-old nurse who didn't vote in the first round, plans to vote for Keke.

"We have the impression that we are always the losers - we work more and earn less," she said. With Keke in parliament, "we will be less like the forgotten."

Maracineanu is meanwhile trying to rally voters over fears of what a left-wing alliance could bring, in line with others in the presidential camp who have warned of chaos if there was no clear majority for Macron in parliament.

"Mr Melenchon is inward-looking," she told Reuters, criticising his plans to "disobey" European treaties. "He has a populist vision for a France that wants to stay in a status quo and not advance."

The leftwing NUPES alliance dismisses such comments as fear-mongering, but some Keke's constituency agree.

"Economically, (the left's propositions) are not reliable," said Philippe Clement, 63, a retired banker. "He's a good speaker, but I don't trust Melenchon."

The candidate of the right-wing Les Republicains, Vincent Jeanbrun, who came third in Val-de-Marne, gave his support to Maracineanu - and one question for Sunday is whether there might be some form of deal between his party and Macron's camp after the election.

Keke says that doesn't faze her, having experienced intimidation including being doused with water and having racist insults thrown at her while on the picket line for 22 months outside her hotel, which is operated by the multinational Ibis hotel chain.

"It's like being a soldier who goes to war, sees everything and comes back and no longer fears anything," she said.

(Reporting by Layli Foroudi; Editing by Ingrid Melander and John Stonestreet)

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