Anina Ciuciu’s journey to contest a French Senate seat in elections next month has been nothing if not unusual.
But the Romania-born woman wants to use it to the advantage of her marginalised would-be constituents in Seine-Saint-Denis, a district that comprises some of Paris’s roughest suburbs.
Ciuciu’s profile is a far cry from the statistical mean. The French Senate, housed in central Paris’s opulent Luxembourg Palace and set in the stately gardens of the same name, has largely been the domain of greying male politicians. Three-quarters of French senators are men and the average age is 64. Sorbonne alumnus and future lawyer Ciuciu, meanwhile, was born into a Roma family in Romania only 27 years ago. She decided to pursue the “adventure” of vying for a senate seat all the same.
About half of the Senate’s constituencies are up for election in this year’s ballot, or 171 of the chamber’s 348 red-velvet seats. Elections to renew about half the body at a time for new six-year terms take place once every three years. Senators win election by indirect universal suffrage, meaning an electoral college made up of other elected representatives like parliamentarians and regional councillors ultimately make the choice.
Currently interning at Amnesty International in London, Ciuciu met FRANCE 24 on a trip home to her Paris neighbourhood. She lives in the 20th arrondissement, even though she spends “most of her time”, she says, in Seine-Saint-Denis, a department of suburbs further north. That is where both of the organisations the young woman works with are headquartered: “La Voix des Roms” (The Voice of the Roma) and “Le Mouvement du 16 mai” (the May 16th Movement). The latter is named for the day in 1944 when Romany concentration camp detainees at Auschwitz rose up against the Nazis due to send them to the gas chambers. “The Romany genocide was the height of a racism that, I hope, will never be repeated,” says Ciuciu. “But it is important to talk about the past and to be vigilant because, just about everywhere in Europe, we see tools of discrimination and exclusion resembling those of that era reappearing.”
Still, turning from activism to politics is a leap. “When Europe Ecologie – les Verts [the Green EELV party] offered me a spot on its [senate elections] list, I wasn’t immediately convinced,” she says. “I didn’t believe in politics as a means to effect change. And I had had an initial experience that I hadn’t found pleasant.” That was in 2014 when Victor Ponta, Romania’s then-prime minister, named her honorary advisor on the Roma issue. “I stopped as soon as I understood that it would change nothing for the people who are suffering,” she says.
Ciuciu says she has an affinity for EELV. “It’s the political movement I feel closest to. They don’t consider Roma to be ‘pests’. Moreover, social justice is often linked to environmental issues, like access to a healthy environment,” she says.
Who persuaded Ciuciu to throw her hat in the senate ring? “In talking with activists, I saw the enthusiasm that the idea of this candidacy elicited. For them, it’s the potential for me to become their voice,” she says. “And on the ground, in the working-class neighbourhoods and in the slums, I see the hope this gives people who are suffering and people who are losing interest in politics.”
That phrase again, “people who are suffering” – it’s a byword that comes up again and again talking with Ciuciu, whether she is speaking about Roma children in the slums, Calais migrants or young people in the more difficult banlieues, or suburbs. It echoes her own life story, one she told in a book, the title of which translates loosely as “I am Roma and will remain so”. The book tells the story of a little girl born in the streets of Craiova, Romania, in a settled Roma family that, facing discrimination and burdened by unemployment, decided to leave the country when she was seven. From the misery of a Roma refugee camp in Italy to the shame of having to beg on market squares after arriving in France, Ciuciu’s family, subject to an order to vacate French territory, owes its salvation to one “Madame Jacqueline”. Thanks to the address the schoolteacher from Bourg-en-Bresse provided for the family’s administrative needs, Anina and her sisters were able to go to school. While all children in France theoretically have the right to attend school, some mayors require an administrative address.
“I was lucky but that shouldn’t depend on luck. Access to schooling for all children of the Republic, that’s the promise I want to hold the institutions to,” Ciuciu says, 20 years on. Beyond access to schooling, fighting police brutality and ending the state of emergency that has been in place in France since 2015 terrorist attacks are battles she wants to wage if she wins election.
That outcome is far from certain since the Greens have yet to finalise their party’s electoral list for Seine-Saint-Denis. In late-July, on Bondyblog, 150 luminaries signed an appeal for “political parties of the ecologist and progressive arc” to give Ciuciu a place on her list that would make her eligible for election. Will that be enough to quiet local EELV members who point out that Ciuciu hasn’t joined the party and “remains unknown to a majority of our members”? The answer should come soon. If she does make that cut, Ciuciu will still have to convince the panel of electors to vote for her on September 24.
Asked who has inspired her activism and political engagement, Ciuciu names South African dissident-turned-president Nelson Mandela, the American political activist Angela Davis and former French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, as well as her own mother. She also cites Larissa, “who lived in a tent pitched on the ground on [Paris’s] Place de la République for two years, with her children in school and her husband working”. Ciuciu always circles back to the marginalised, the forgotten. In fact, if she is elected to the Senate, Ciuciu wants to open the Luxembourg Palace’s doors to them, recalling the two young girls she met during a flashmob that La Voix des Roms had organised who said they had never seen Notre Dame Cathedral, even though they lived only a few Metro stations away from the Paris monument, in social housing in the city’s 19th arrondissement.
Ciuciu would be the first Roma woman ever elected to the French Senate. “It happens that I am Roma. I have always asserted that side of my identity… even when people advised me to hide it,” she says, adding that becoming a legislator, representing the public, would be “a strong symbol, historic even, in France, the country of human rights and the Revolution”.