Don't forget us, say workers in French election factory stand-off

Clare BYRNE
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Whirlpool workers are worried about their jobs

The fires of protest are still burning at the doomed French tumble-dryer factory where centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron and his far-right rival Marine Le Pen staged a dramatic battle last week for workers' votes.

Black ash from a stack of smouldering tyres falls like snow on workers picketing outside the Whirlpool plant in Amiens over the company's plans to move their jobs to Poland.

It was here that the battle lines in the presidential run-off were drawn, when Le Pen -- who has run as the candidate of the dispossessed -- upstaged Macron by making a surprise whirlwind visit to the picket line as Macron was meeting unions to discuss the plant's future.

The pro-EU Macron arrived afterwards, mobbed by the workers who initially booed him, but he eventually managed to turn the situation around and engage them in dialogue about the pros and cons of globalisation.

For the workers, the dust-up between Le Pen and Macron -- over which the two candidates traded blows in Wednesday's TV debate -- was a zero-sum game.

"They came looking for votes and to make promises. It was a publicity stunt," Corinne Bizet, one of the 290 Whirlpool workers whose jobs are on the line, said Wednesday.

The announcement in January that Whirlpool was moving production to the Polish city of Lodz was a blow for Amiens, a city of 130,000 people in northern France still reeling from the loss of 1,100 jobs at a Goodyear tyre factory in 2014.

Like many of the workers, Bizet has spent nearly two decades at the plant, where she met her husband. At 49, she now fears being left on the jobs shelf.

Standing in the car park, a besuited Macron attempted to convince the strikers that, far from protecting factory jobs, Le Pen's proposals to pull France out of the EU would deter new investment.

"The man has no heart. He only came here because she came," said Bizet, a chatty mother of three with plum hair and a small stud earring under her lower lip.

But while praising Le Pen as "closer to the people", Bizet expressed misgivings about Le Pen's proposal to leave the EU and dump the euro after a period of negotiations.

"Le Pen thinks that will turn France around but there's no magic wand," she said with an air of resignation.

- 'Survival of the fittest' -

Globalisation has dominated the most divisive French election in decades, with a string of factory closures fuelling fury with Europe and mainstream politics.

On Wednesday, Le Pen, who has pushed a French-first approach to jobs and trade, accused Macron of hanging out workers to dry with a "survival of the fittest" approach.

"Your strategy is to tell lots of lies, you don't propose anything," Macron retorted, charging that Le Pen -- who floated the prospect of investing state money to save the Whirlpool plant -- of peddling "rubbish".

David Gallopin, a line manager at Whirlpool, said he had gone from "zero percent convinced to 50 percent convinced" by Macron after his visit to the factory.

The 39-year-old politician cited an export-led Procter & Gamble detergent plant employing over 1,000 people just five kilometres (three miles) away from Whirlpool in Amiens as an argument against protectionism.

"Without leaving Europe, there are things we need to change," said Gallopin, a softly-spoken 49-year-old whose son works at P&G.

"If we can't stop companies offshoring, we have to ensure they don't leave people by the wayside when they leave," he argued.

- Echoes of conflict -

The debate over globalisation has particular resonance in the northern Somme area which saw fierce fighting during World War I.

Philippe Melen, a 64-year-old jazz musician whose British grandfather died in France during the war, joined around 160 people on a march through Amiens on Wednesday to show his opposition to Le Pen and her anti-immigration National Front.

"Madame Le Pen wants to put France in a glass case but it's not possible. That could take us back down the path of war," said the white-haired, moustachioed Melen, who wore a suit and his grandfather's war medal for the occasion.

Addressing the gathering outside Amiens town hall, centrist mayor Brigitte Foure expressed understanding for the frustration of the Whirlpool workers.

"But this anger must not lead to a vote of revolt and protest on behalf of the far right," she urged.

Tonio Abenhosa, one of the plant's union leaders, said he would cast a blank vote to protest what he saw as the powerlessness of French politicians in the face of multinationals and the EU.

"We need a revolution to win back our rights," he declared.

Gallopin said he was counting on Macron to pressure Whirlpool into giving the workers a good redundancy package if elected.

"He said he would not let us down," he said. "I hope he keeps his word."

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