How Macron calmed Whirlpool workers whipped up by Le Pen

Jon Henley European affairs editor

In an era when politicians’ interactions with the public are stage-managed to the last image-obsessed detail, when meaningless slogans are all they are allowed to utter and when no candidate is allowed near any situation that might misfire, it was a rare moment.

It also encapsulated an elemental French presidential campaign pitting the anti-EU, anti-globalisation and protectionist message of far-right leader Marine Le Pen against the more business-friendly and internationalist stance of the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron.

For more than an hour on Wednesday afternoon, Macron, a former investment banker and economy minister and the frontrunner in the race for the Elysée, talked – and listened – to a crowd of angry workers at a tumble-dryer factory in Amiens, northern France, threatened with closure by June 2018.

Greeted by whistles and calls of “Marine for president” when he arrived, by the time he left Macron had, if not completely convinced his audience, at least ended the jeers – and won some respect. “I’m not sure he can truly help us,” said one striking employee. “But he tried. He was quiet and honest.”

The impromptu, at times heated exchange could not have been in greater contrast with (for example) Theresa May’s appearance in Bridgend on Tuesday, when the British prime minister delivered a brief prepared message about “strong and stable leadership” to a carefully chosen and supportive audience.

But it could yet prove significant in a campaign in which Le Pen knows that her best chance of defeating Macron will be to portray him as the elitist representative of a political class that has sold France’s workers out to globalisation.

Macron’s intervention was all the braver because it followed a brief but incendiary appearance on the same Whirlpool picket line by the Front National leader, who collected almost a third of the vote in Sunday’s first round in the region that has France’s highest unemployment rate.

As Macron was meeting union representatives from the factory, which employs 286 people, a few miles away, at the chamber of commerce in the centre of Amiens, his home town, Le Pen unexpectedly appeared on the picket line and lambasted her rival for showing “contempt” by failing to come to talk to them.

“Emmanuel Macron is with the oligarchs, with the employers,” Le Pen said. “I am where I should be, with the employees of Whirlpool who are fighting this uncontrolled globalisation, this shameful economic model – not eating petits-fours with a few representatives who only represent themselves.”

The far-right candidate shook hands and took selfies, saying later that she “solemnly pledged” to save the factory, which Whirlpool plans to relocate to Poland. If she won, it would be placed under “temporary state protection”, she said, and products made abroad by French companies taxed at 35%.

Two hours later, Macron came to debate the workers himself. Amid initial taunts, he explained that he was meeting the unions first so that he could discuss the issue with the employees properly afterwards.

Macron accused Le Pen of exploiting the situation “for political ends” and of lying when she vowed to halt the relocation. He handed the microphone to workers, listening to their questions and promising to answer truthfully.

“When she tells you the solution is to turn back globalisation, to close borders, she is lying,” he said during the exchange, which was streamed live on his Facebook page. “If she’s elected, this company will close.”

“Madame Le Pen does not understand how this country works,” he insisted. “If we shut down borders, thousands and thousands of jobs will be lost.” He cited a Procter & Gamble factory nearby, saying it exported 90% of its output.

Macron said he refused to make “airy promises” to keep the factory open, but pledged the firm’s redundancy plan would not be accepted if it was not good enough. While some continued to boo for a while, the crowd had largely calmed down by the end of the discussion. He shook hands with several workers as he left.

For the centrist candidate, who has never held elected office, the confrontation was a major risk. He was criticised on Monday after celebrating his first round win over Le Pen in a Paris brasserie with campaign staff, and the exchange outside the factory could have backfired badly.

But several commentators said Macron’s decision would end up playing in his favour. “It could be that Le Pen’s coup failed in the end by giving Macron the political thick skin he was lacking until now,” said Christian Delporte, a historian and political image specialist at the university of Versailles.

“Macron is fighting back,” said Laurent Joffrn, the editor of the left-leaning daily Libération. “By rolling up his shirt sleeves at Whirlpool, abused by furious or desperate employees who nonetheless appreciated speaking to him, he has corrected his mistake of Sunday evening.”

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