Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen turned an appliance factory into a battleground Wednesday for France's blue-collar vote, upstaging rival Emmanuel Macron with a surprise campaign stop at the plant threatened with closure.
Chaotic scenes followed as Macron, a pro-European Union centrist, sought to wrestle back the initiative by making his own, impromptu stop at the Whirlpool clothes-dryer plant in Amiens, spending over an hour in Le Pen's wake trying to reason with angry employees who asked why the former finance minister hadn't come there earlier.
The remarkable drama, broadcast live on French news channels, transformed the plant in northern France into a symbol of the diametrically opposed campaigns of Le Pen and Macron before their May 7 runoff election.
As Macron met elsewhere with the workers' union leaders, Le Pen displayed her political guile by grabbing the spotlight and popping up outside the factory itself. Surrounded by employees in bright-yellow hazard vests, she declared herself the workers' candidate and vowed that if elected, she would not let the factory close.
"We'll get you out of here," Le Pen said as she hugged a woman in the crowd outside the plant, its fences decorated with workers' banners. "I am the candidate of workers, the candidate of the French who don't want their jobs taken away."
Her wily campaign maneuver stole Macron's thunder and put him on the defensive. It prompted him to make his own trip to the factory a few hours later — which quickly looked like he had fallen into a trap set by Le Pen. Live TV coverage of his visit looked chaotic and potentially damaging, with people whistling, booing and chanting "Marine, president!" in the background.
"Why didn't you come before?" one woman asked.
"Save our jobs, Monsieur Macron!" yelled a man.
But Macron, appearing in a suit and tie amid the workers, held his ground. Where Le Pen's visit was short — with a few selfies, hugs, kisses and a quick speech to the cameras — Macron spent over an hour patiently, and at times passionately, explaining in often-heated exchanges that as president, he wouldn't be able to stop companies from laying off workers. The back and forth was shown live on Macron's Facebook page, signaling a desire not to let Le Pen hog the limelight.
"I won't lie to you," he said. "There is no miracle recipe."
The contrasting images of Le Pen smiling with workers and Macron debating them spoke to her political experience and laid bare their contrasting styles.
The 48-year-old populist is fighting her second presidential campaign after coming in third in 2012, while the 39-year-old former investment banker is waging his first, having never held elected office.
Le Pen hit Macron close to home with her politicking: He was born in Amiens.
Needing millions more votes to beat Macron in the runoff, Le Pen hammered home her arguments that more French jobs would be lost abroad under Macron's more economically liberal program.
"I'm here, in my place, exactly where I should be, in the midst of Whirlpool's employees, these employees who are resisting this wild globalization, this shameful economic model," Le Pen said.
In a dig at Macron's meeting with union leaders, she added: "I'm not eating little cakes with a few representatives who, in reality, represent only themselves."
During an evening political rally in nearby Arras, Macron tried to reverse the unflattering image he gave in the afternoon. He vehemently attacked Le Pen, saying she "stirs up hatred, lies, speaks about fears in order to use them, but gives no answers."
While Le Pen presents herself as an anti-establishment candidate, Macron claimed on the contrary that she is "the heiress of this system. She was born in a party castle, even if she claims to be from the people."
He also criticized Le Pen for proposing that the French state take a share in the plant if needed. He dismissed such an idea, saying in an interview with BFM TV channel that "the mission of a state is not to produce clothes dryers."
In Arras, Macron also tried to appeal to left-wing voters and non-voters.
"Faced with this threat, facing those who hate the Republic and create disorder and hatred, choose a camp," he said. "I need your vote. Your vote is not a blank check."
Even before Le Pen's surprise appearance at the plant, Macron's intervention in the Whirlpool factory's future, in a region where Le Pen got more votes in Sunday's first-round balloting, was fraught with risk. He 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 he may struggle to keep.
Because production at the Whirlpool plant is due to stop next year and move to Poland, the workers' plight is a prickly issue for Macron as he campaigns on a pro-EU platform.
Le Pen seized on Whirlpool as a sign of the EU's ills, calling it "the symbol of this odious globalization, which leads to plants moving abroad, destroying thousands of jobs."
Macron insisted he did the right thing by meeting with union leaders before going the factory itself.
"If you don't speak to employees' representatives and engage in direct democracy, using invective or false promises, you don't solve any of the country's problems," he said.
He shot down Le Pen's plans to re-establish French borders — part of her program calling for "French-first" economic and social protectionism.
"The closure of borders is a promise made of lies," Macron said.
The Amiens factory joins a list of threatened plants that have become symbolic of job losses in French presidential campaigns.
In the 2012 race, Socialist Francois Hollande traveled to a 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 Hollande's government struck with steel giant ArcelorMittal.