From hunger striker to deputy candidate: the rise of the French “humanist baker” | France

AAfter dark in the kitchen of a bakery, Stéphane Ravacley was hitting blocks of butter with a giant rolling pin while preparing his croissant dough. “Many French people have lost faith in politics,” he said as he fashioned the first of 500 croissants. “They don’t vote, they don’t feel listened to, and it’s my fight to win them back.”

The 53-year-old baker who hails from what he calls the ‘bottom of the social ladder’ has captured France’s imagination as one of the most unlikely newcomers to the first round of this weekend’s legislative elections -end.

Ravacley’s outward challenge to Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party in Doubs near the Swiss border in eastern France draws attention to the newly re-elected president’s image problem as aloof, particularly over concerns people’s daily lives.

Macron is seeking a centrist parliamentary majority in order to have a free hand on his policies, such as raising the retirement age and overhauling the benefits system. But turnout on June 12 and 19 is expected to be at an all-time high of less than 48% amid growing distrust of the political class. Some voters believe the real battle will be with street protests against Macron’s policies starting in the fall, so there’s ‘not much point’ in voting, as one unemployed worker in a housing estate put it from the eastern town of Besançon.

Stéphane Ravacley (centre) delivers a speech at a campaign rally in Besançon on May 15. Photography: Sebastien Bozon/AFP/Getty Images

A historic alliance of left-wing parties, led by radical Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is seeking big gains in parliament, and pollsters predict it will triple its seats and become the main opposition to Macron’s centrists. Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally is also seeking to increase its seats.

Ravacley, who does not belong to any political party, is a candidate for parliament for the left alliance, supported by the Greens. He argues that the French parliament, which is mostly middle-class with a high level of formal education, needs more working-class manual workers who understand the way the French think. He grew up in the east of France, in a poor family who worked the cereal fields. His mother died in a tractor accident when he was four, leaving his father with three children.

What's happening?

France votes in two rounds of parliament elections on 12 and 19 June, which will set the balance of power for the next five years. The results will define Emmanuel Macron’s capacity to deliver his domestic policy, such as raising the pension age and overhauling benefits.

How does the vote work?

Voters choose 577 parliament representatives for the National Assembly in a "first past the post" voting system. Most constituencies go to a second-round run-off between two or three, sometimes four, candidates. The top scorer wins.

What do the polls look like?

Macron’s centrist grouping is seeking an absolute majority, which requires winning at least 289 seats.

It is hard for pollsters to accurately predict the number of seats of the final result.

Two polls in early April suggested Macron’s grouping might take between 275 and 315 seats. If Macron’s grouping wins the greatest number of seats, but falls short of an absolute majority, it would have to seek support on legislation from allies, potentially on the right.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s alliance of leftwing parties has been predicted in polls for Ifop-Fiducial and Elabe to greatly increase its number of seats to between 155 and 205, which would make it the main opposition force.

Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party has historically been limited by the absence of proportional representation and is predicted by pollsters to increase its seats to between 20 and and 65.

","image":"https://i.guim.co.uk/img/media/779cc651abe28ffac51b8788b902fe643a3e4af5/338_0_1268_1268/1268.jpg?width=620&quality=85&auto=format&fit=max&s=b241717d5e902945e5455343b8972edf","credit":"Photograph: Johanna Geron/X07006","pillar":0}">
Quick guide

French legislative elections

Spectacle

What is happening?

France will vote in two rounds of legislative elections on June 12 and 19, which will determine the balance of power for the next five years. The results will define Emmanuel Macron’s ability to carry out his domestic policies, such as raising the retirement age and overhauling benefits.

How does voting work?

Voters choose 577 parliamentary representatives in the National Assembly under a “first past the post” voting system. Most constituencies proceed to a second round between two or three, sometimes four candidates. The top scorer wins.

What do the polls look like?

Macron’s centrist group is seeking an absolute majority, which requires winning at least 289 seats.

It is difficult for pollsters to accurately predict the number of seats in the final result.

Two polls in early April suggested Macron’s group could take between 275 and 315 seats. If Macron’s group wins the most seats but falls short of an outright majority, it will have to seek support on legislation from potentially right-wing allies.

The alliance of left parties of Jean-Luc Mélenchon is predicted in the polls for Ifop-Fiducial and Elaborated to significantly increase its number of seats between 155 and 205, which would make it the main opposition force.

Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party has always been constrained by a lack of proportional representation and pollsters plan to increase its seats to between 20 and 65.

Photography: Johanna Geron/X07006

Thank you for your opinion.

Ravacley is known as the “humanist baker of Besançon”. He rose to fame last year for continuing hunger-strike in defense of his Guinean apprentice baker, Laye Fodé Traoré, an orphan who arrived in France as an unaccompanied minor aged 16, but threatened with deportation at the age of 18. Ravacley’s protest tapped into national concern for unaccompanied child migrants. Stars including actors Omar Sy and Marion Cotillard signed an open letter to Macron on his behalf. Yet it took 11 days of a hunger strike and Ravacley’s sudden hospitalization for authorities to make contact and begin processing Traore’s papers, allowing him to stay.

“When I went on a hunger strike, I was first met with silence from the authorities and that changed me as a person,” Ravacley said. “I’ve become a monster now – a kind, gentle monster – I really understand that if you want to change things, you have to fight for it.”

Stéphane Ravacley working with Guinean apprentice Laye Fode Traoré in January 2021 after the baker's campaign to save him from deportation ended in victory.
Stéphane Ravacley works with Guinean apprentice Laye Fode Traoré in January 2021 after the baker’s campaign to save him from deportation ended in victory. Photography: Sebastien Bozon/AFP/Getty Images

The baker’s campaign calendar is busy. He works his croissants until 10 p.m., sleeps three hours, gets up at 1:30 a.m. to bake the bread from his store until noon, takes a short nap, then leaves in his old Renault Twingo full of sacks of flour so that he prospected in his eastern constituency which extended from the subdivisions of Besançon to the small surrounding villages.

Ravacley still supports migrants who arrived as unaccompanied minors, as well as young French people leaving the care system, which has opened him up to far-right attacks. Last week, one of his election posters was sprayed with the Nazi swastika and racist insults. “I will never give in to hate,” he said.

In an election that pollsters described as dull and boring, Ravacley emerged as a high profile figure. At last month’s Cannes Film Festival, the Dardenne brothers’ directorial duo, whose latest film is about young migrants in Belgium, dedicated their film to Ravacley. They called his hunger strike “a great act of resistance in our time”.

Ravacley said: “I was unrolling my croissants, as usual at this time of night, the phone rang and someone said, ‘Turn on the TV, we’re talking about you in Cannes.’ Unbelievable.”

The city of Besançon, led by a Green mayor since 2020, saw a high vote for leftist Mélenchon in the presidential race – he came out on top in the first round, beating Macron and Le Pen. Ravacley’s challenge is whether the new left-wing alliance can now persuade voters to run for parliament again, especially in estates where abstention is high.

In estates in the Clairs-Soleils district of Besançon, as Ravacley knocked on doors, people said their biggest concern was making ends meet, as well as the climate crisis, but trust in politics was low.

Outside a primary school, Ahmed, 32, an accountant who picks up his two daughters, said he recognized Ravacley on television. “It’s important to have someone in parliament who understands people’s day-to-day concerns, and we’re really struggling with the cost of food and fuel,” he said. “If I vote, I will vote for him. But I’m not really sure it’s worth voting, nothing ever changes.

Sign up for First Edition, our free daily newsletter – every weekday morning at 7am BST

Nabia Hakkar-Boyer, Socialist Party regional councilor and Ravacley running mate, said: “He comes across as down-to-earth and different from the other candidates. He looks like the voters themselves and he understands their lives. He always has flour on his pants and he works more than 15 hours a day.

Since yellow vests anti-government protests in Macron’s first term, there was a demand for “ordinary citizens” to play a greater role in political decision-making. Under pressure, Macron promised this month to set up a broad democratic dialogue with the French, but he has not yet specified in what form.

Ravacley is not the only citizen protester to have become a candidate in the legislative elections this year. Rachel Keke, a hotel housekeeper who ran a two-year strike for better conditions for housekeepers in a hotel on the outskirts of Paris, is running for the left-wing alliance in the east of the capital.

Meanwhile, Ravacley even made his worn, flour-encrusted work shoes a campaign stunt. “I will go to the National Assembly in my magic shoes,” he said. “They keep me grounded.”

Comments are closed.