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Macron takes on Le Pen at Whirlpool tumble dryer plant, wins spin cycle

Lionel Bonaventure, AFP | Electoral posters of Emmanuel Macron (R) and Marine Le Pen (L) are stored in a warehouse in Gonesse, north of Paris on April 26, 2017.

After a slow start, particularly for centrist political neophyte Emmanuel Macron, France’s finalist duel for the presidency began in earnest Wednesday on a tumble dryer factory’s parking lot in Amiens, northern France.


There, outside the troubled Whirlpool plant in France’s northern industrial belt, National Front candidate Marine Le Pen looked to school her rival – who had never stood for election before Sunday’s presidential first round – in the art of the presidential campaign. And for half a news cycle, she seemed to have succeeded.

The 48-year-old veteran politician – waging her second campaign for the presidency, and her seventh if one counts the bids she witnessed her father Jean-Marie Le Pen mount in 1974, 1988, 1995, 2002 and 2007 – appeared unannounced at the factory on the very morning Macron was meeting with the plant employees’ union representatives at a chamber of trades offsite – a campaign-defining move calculated to cast her as the candidate of the people and Macron as an out-of-touch elitist.

“Emmanuel Macron is with the oligarchs, with the Medef [a national employers’ association]… I am with the French workers,” she boasted in the parking lot of the plant slated for closure in June 2018, with more than 500 jobs at risk. Whirlpool plans to move its tumble-dryer production to Poland.

“I am here where I belong, exactly where I should be, among these workers who are resisting savage globalisation, this economic model that is shameful. I am not eating petits fours with a few representatives who actually represent no one but themselves,” she said on live television, in an event deemed a media coup.

Le Pen built her political base in this Hauts de France region, stumping for a strong welfare state in old Communist bastions well past their industrial heyday. In Sunday’s vote, Le Pen beat Macron in the Somme, the administrative department where Amiens, his hometown, is located; she scored 30.37 percent to Macron’s 21.75 percent.

BFM-TV, the news network Le Pen convened to the impromptu Whirlpool meet-up, showed images of Macron, the 39-year-old onetime investment banker, in a suit and tie, talking with union delegates at the chamber kilometres away, while Le Pen was all smiles, posing for selfies with striking workers.

“When I heard that Emmanuel Macron was coming here and did not plan to meet with the workers, did not plan to come to the picket line but would shelter himself who knows where in the chamber of commerce… I considered that it was such a sign of contempt for the Whirlpool workers that I decided to… come here and see you,” she told the workers on camera.

With her clever timing, Le Pen looked to have forced Macron’s hand. As Macron and the unions tell it, the candidate was invited to visit the plant at the start of their meeting, before it was known Le Pen would make her stealthy foray into the limelight. But in any case, after her savvy woman-of-the-people salvo, Macron couldn’t very well have done otherwise. He would follow Le Pen’s lead to the parking lot before the afternoon was out, to a much less warm welcome.

Macron, who was born and raised in Amiens – the son of doctors, not factory workers – had had plenty of opportunity to seize on Whirlpool’s plight, which has been in the news for months, for political benefit. But he has demurred. Pushed on a political interview show on April 6 to visit the factory with cameras in tow by François Ruffin, a fellow Amiens native who became a headline defender of blue-collar rights with his 2016 hit documentary “Merci Patron!” (Thanks, Boss!), Macron said he wouldn’t get up to candidates’ old tricks.

“I don’t consider that a presidential campaign is for pulpit remarks with promises that can’t be kept. So I am not doing it for Whirlpool. I didn’t seize on cases in progress, hot-topic restructuring cases, because that is complete demagoguery, speaking frankly,” Macron told Ruffin on France 2. “That was done five years ago, 10 years ago… My silence, it isn’t indifference. My silence is a refusal to manipulate situations. It’s too easy. Because what am I going to do? I’m going to get up on a truck and say ‘With me, it won’t close,’ and everyone knows it isn’t true.”

Three weeks later, Macron finds himself, to an extent, on the defensive. Accused of complacency in a race that every poll for months has said he would win handily if he could just make it to the final against Le Pen, Macron has been accused this week of triumphalism (for celebrating his first-round score Sunday night with associates in a chic Paris brasserie) and complacency (for staying mostly off the trail on Monday). An Elabe poll released Thursday showed that half of French people surveyed believed Le Pen’s run-off campaign had gotten off to a good start, compared to 43 percent for Macron. Amid calls by far-leftist voters in particular to abstain from the run-off, an OpinionWay poll released Thursday showed the race narrowing slightly, with voter intentions for Macron dipping to 59 percent, under the 60 percent mark for the first time since mid-March with 10 days to go before the May 7 vote.

But while Le Pen had attempted to school Macron, the student may well have come out on top in his first real test on the finalists’ trail.

The setting, after all, was something of a lion’s den. One union representative said 90 percent of the company’s workers voted for Marine Le Pen on Sunday.

“He is disdainful and obnoxious,” Marie, a 48-year-old with 23 years on the job at Whirlpool, told FRANCE 24’s Romain Brunet before the former economy minister’s arrival. “He is judgmental when he talks about illiterate women or people who wear T-shirts,” she says, alluding to old controversial comments Macron made as minister. “But does he know his suit costs more than my salary? Of course not! He’s a banker, anyway. If he is elected, we’ll pay dearly with him."

Minutes later, Macron arrived and the striking workers let him have it. “Marine Présidente!” they cried out. “Get lost!”, “Dirty banker!” others called out. Eventually, the independent centrist was able to invite workers behind the factory gates for a long, lively discussion, away from the cameras. His campaign did broadcast the 45-minute exchange on Facebook Live, a feed picked up live across the 24-hour news networks and featured on nightly news broadcasts.

The battery on the microphone he was using – and passing around for long questions and comments from workers, union representatives, and Ruffin himself, who was there, too – gave out after 35 minutes. “It doesn’t matter,” he said, and spoke louder to make himself heard. He told the workers what he could do for them if elected, in particular not signing off on Whirlpool’s redundancy plan if it isn’t appropriate and seeking a credible buyer with a sustainable solution to save the plant’s jobs.

But in contrast to the populist note struck by Le Pen, he was straight with the workers, telling them what he couldn’t do, too. “Banning the payment of dividends or forbidding a company from closing a site it has decided to close is not possible, would even be counterproductive,” he said. “Why? Because there is a freedom of enterprise and free property in our democracy,” he said. "So on that, I won’t bring an answer because it’s not true. If I do that, no one will come invest in France,” he explained.

The in-depth exchange concluded far more calmly than it had begun, with handshakes all around. In the event, Macron made good on an opportunity to sound and look presidential that Le Pen effectively handed him, leaving her lightning incursion looking frivolous.

“In coming to provoke him in his native city, Marine Le Pen offered Emmanuel Macron an occasion to show that he wasn’t afraid of initiating physical contact with employees that are victims of wage competition in Europe,” local regional newspaper La Voix du Nord editorialised on Thursday morning. “The Whirlpool sequence in front of the cameras marks the real launch of the second-round campaign. It remains to be seen whether 10 minutes of smiling selfies will be more effective than three quarters of an hour of tense dialogue on the search for a solution for [the plant’s] recovery.”

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