France’s Le Pen upstages rival Macron with stop at factory

France's Le Pen upstages rival Macron with stop at factory

AMIENS, France — Far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen upstaged her centrist opponent Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday by making a surprise campaign stop to a home appliance factory that’s the latest hot-button symbol of French job losses to plants overseas.

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

The wily campaign manoeuvr, which French television news channel BFM broadcast live, had the immediate effect of stealing Macron’s thunder. As Le Pen took selfies with people outside the threatened plant, he was shown in a closed-door meeting with union leaders in the town of Amiens, dressed in a suit and tie.

The contrasting images — on-the-spot action vs. a more formulaic approach — spoke to Le Pen’s political smarts.

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.

Even before Le Pen’s impromptu appearance, Macron’s intervention in the Whirlpool factory’s future, in a region where Le Pen got the most votes, was fraught with risk. The pro-EU centrist 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 could struggle to keep.

The factory in Amiens, where the production of dryers is due to stop this year and shift to Poland, 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 travelled 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.

Le Pen has vowed to keep the Amiens plant open if elected, come what may.

Needing millions more votes to beat Macron in France’s May 7 presidential runoff, she has been hammering hard her claims that more French jobs would be lost overseas under Macron’s more economically liberal program.

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Leicester reported from Paris.

Chris Den Hond And John Leicester, The Associated Press

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