- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 26, 2017

AMIENS, France (AP) — Battling for France’s blue-collar vote and employing all of her political guile, far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen upstaged her centrist rival Emmanuel Macron by making a surprise campaign stop Wednesday to a home appliance factory threatened with closure.

As Macron was meeting elsewhere with union leaders from the Whirlpool plant in northern France, Le Pen popped up outside the factory itself. Surrounded by workers in bright-yellow hazard vests, she declared herself the candidate of France’s workers.

“We’ll get you out of here,” Le Pen said as she hugged a woman in the crowd outside the plant, its fences festooned with workers’ banners. She vowed to not let the factory close if elected in France’s presidential runoff on May 7.

“I am the candidate of workers, the candidate of the French who don’t want their jobs taken away,” she said.

Le Pen’s wily campaign maneuver, which French television news channel BFM broadcast live, had the immediate effect of stealing Macron’s thunder.

It prompted him to make his own trip to the factory a few hours later — which quickly looked like he had fallen into a trap laid by Le Pen. Live TV coverage of his visit looked chaotic and potentially damaging, with people whistling, booing and chants of “Marine, president!” heard in the background.

“Why didn’t you come before?” one woman was heard asking him.

“Save our jobs, Monsieur Macron!” yelled a man.

Earlier, as Le Pen was taking selfies, dispensing hugs and kisses with people outside the threatened plant, Macron was in a closed-door meeting with union leaders in the town of Amiens, dressed in a suit and tie.

The contrasting images — Le Pen smiling with workers; Macron in heated exchanges with them — spoke to her political experience.

Le Pen, 48, is fighting her second presidential campaign after coming in third in 2012 while Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker and economy minister, is fighting his first, having never held elected office. Le Pen also hit Macron close to home with her politicking: Amiens is the town where he was born.

Needing millions more votes to beat Macron on May 7, Le Pen has been hammering hard her claims that more French jobs would be lost overseas under Macron’s more economically liberal program.

“I’m here, in my place, exactly where I should be, in the midst of Whirlpool’s employees, these employees who are resisting this wild globalization, this shameful economic model,” Le Pen said.

In a dig at Macron’s meeting with union leaders, she added: “I’m not eating little cakes with a few representatives who, in reality, represent only themselves.”

Macron said Le Pen was engaging in “political hay-making.”

Even before Le Pen’s impromptu appearance, Macron’s intervention in the Whirlpool factory’s future, in a region where Le Pen got more votes than him in the first-round presidential ballot on Sunday, was fraught with risk. Macron had to tread a fine line between defending his program to tackle France’s chronic unemployment without falling into the trap of making campaign promises that, if he wins, he may struggle to keep.

Because production at the Whirlpool plant is due to stop this year and move to Poland, the factory workers’ plight is a prickly thorn for Macron as he campaigns on a pro-European Union platform.

The anti-EU Le Pen seized on the Whirlpool case as an example of the EU’s ills, calling it “the symbol of this odious globalization, which leads to plants moving abroad, destroying thousands of jobs.”

Macron insisted he did the right thing by meeting with workers’ union leaders before going the factory itself.

“If you don’t speak to employees’ representatives and engage in direct democracy, with invective or false promises, you don’t solve any of the country’s problems,” he said.

“I won’t lie to you,” Macron said, adding that he would not ban job losses if elected.

He shot down Le Pen’s plans to re-establish French borders.

“The closure of borders is a promise made of lies,” he said.

The factory in Amiens joins a list of threatened plants that have become symbolic of job losses in French presidential campaigns.

In the 2012 presidential race, Socialist Francois Hollande traveled to a closure-threatened steel plant in eastern France’s rust belt in a similar pursuit of blue-collar votes. Union leaders later felt betrayed when the Hayange plant’s blast furnaces were mothballed in a deal that President Hollande’s government struck with steel giant ArcelorMittal.


Leicester reported from Paris.

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