Emmanuel Macron avoided a pitfall on his path to the French presidency, largely quieting an angry crowd of factory workers who’d been fired up a couple of hours earlier by his rival Marine Le Pen.
The scene in front of the gates of the Whirlpool appliance plant at Amiens in northern France, Macron’s hometown, had the makings of a media ambush, and it ignited what’s likely to be a combative closing stretch of the campaign. The centrist frontrunner was there to meet union officials at the factory, which is slated to close — a difficult but apparently routine event. Instead, it became a media circus when Le Pen unexpectedly showed up.
The populist leader, who accuses France’s mainstream politicians of selling out to globalization, posed for photos with workers on the picket line. She blasted Macron for showing “contempt” for their plight by holding his talks behind closed doors. Footage rapidly spread across social media.
Less than two hours later, Macron, the 39-year old defender of free trade and the European Union, rejigged his plans and arrived at the factory himself, to be greeted by burning tires and some shouts of “Marine President.” But Macron didn’t budge. For an hour and twenty minutes, he absorbed much of the anger and taunts, vowed to tell the truth about what was possible, and slammed Le Pen for demagoguery. “When she tells you the solution is to turn back globalization, she’s lying,” he said.
Some in the crowd continued to jeer at Macron for a while, but by the time he left there was no booing. He shook hands with all the workers. At least one of them had been convinced.
“When he arrived I was not happy to see him — he came because she came,” said Celia Blagny, a 20-year-old factory employee. “But he spoke to us. I’m not sure he can truly help us. But he tried.” Blagny said she’s no fan of Le Pen, but her views of Macron changed after the encounter: “He was quiet and honest.” She said she may now try to persuade her mother “to go for Macron instead of staying home.”
The showdown in the medium-sized industrial town, a scene of battles in both world wars, encapsulates the fight over free trade and European cooperation that’s central to the election. Macron says he’s defending the bulwarks of France’s prosperity over half a century, while Le Pen argues that they’re no longer working for most French people.
For Macron, the stakes were high. The political novice and former banker is tipped by polls to win the May 7 runoff handily, by as much as 20 percentage points. But he stumbled at the start of the two-week, head-to-head contest that followed last weekend’s first round of voting.
‘LIKE AN ELITIST’
Macron held a celebratory dinner in Paris for campaign staff, which played perfectly into Le Pen’s effort to paint him as an out-of-touch member of the country’s privileged ruling caste. Today’s scene at the factory had the potential to reinforce that branding.
“Le Pen knows the only shot she has at winning is making Macron look like an elitist,” said Antonio Barroso, an analyst at Teneo Research in London. “The irony is she may have handed him the perfect counter-punch and he looks set to dominate the news cycle.”
Amiens is part of the Hauts de France region, which has an unemployment rate of about 12 percent, the highest in the country. Le Pen scored almost a third of the vote there in the first round, while Macron tied for second place with far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Macron stuck to his free-trade positions during his tour of the region, repeatedly citing a nearby Procter & Gamble factory that exports 90 percent of its output. “If Madame Le Pen is elected, this company closes. And I can mention dozens like it,” he said.
Le Pen’s charge that Macron is too cozy with the bosses did resonate with some of the Amiens crowd. “Macron is the worst of free-market politics,” said Clement Pons, a 32-year-old unemployed man. “He’s a globalist who will kill the working class. He makes me want to throw up.”
There may be more confrontational scenes in the coming days, as Le Pen seeks to overturn her poll deficit. “War Declared” was Liberation newspaper’s Thursday headline.