Chaotic scenes broke out during a visit by French presidential frontrunner Emmanuel Macron to striking factory workers in his hometown of Amiens.
Macron was greeted Wednesday with jeers, boos and chants in favour of his far-right rival Marine Le Pen as he made a chaotic visit to the factory in northern France, after what Bloomberg said was "an ambush" by his nationalist rival Marine Le Pen forced him into a confrontation with some of her hardcore supporters.
Earlier on Wednesday, Le Pen had made a surprise visit to the Whirlpool plant on the edge of Amiens while election front-runner Macron was meeting with union leaders from the plant in the center of town. Le Pen told reporters on the picket line that Macron’s decision to meet the workers’ representatives behind closed doors showed his “contempt” for their plight, forcing her rival to change his plans and engage with the demonstrators live on television.
During the hastily arranged visit, some in the crowd shouted "President Marine!" and booed as the 39-year-old former banker stood outside the appliance factory in the rustbelt city of Amiens.
"I am here to speak to you," said the pro-business former economy minister, ringed by a horde of cameramen and journalists.
The Whirlpool factory has become a focus of the free-trade debate at the heart of the French election campaign because 280 jobs will be cut next year when the company shifts production to Poland.
As Bloomberg describes the scene, "with the black smoke of burning tires whipped up by a cold wind and cries of “Marine! President!” punctuating his remarks, Macron tried to mount a defense of the European trade regime in the factory parking lot as angry demonstrators crowded round."
“When she tells you the solution is to turn back globalization, she’s lying,” Macron told the workers, his comments picked by the microphones of more than 100 reporters witnessing the clash. “We cannot outlaw firing. We must fight to find a buyer.”
Judging by the response, the local workers did not find Macron very convincing.
Earlier, Macron was in his hometown of Amiens to try to counter accusations that he had made a complacent start to campaigning for the presidential runoff on May 7 after he finished ahead of Le Pen in the first round on Sunday. But his trip to the city was upstaged when Le Pen made an unannounced visit to the factory earlier in the day, arriving while he was meeting with workers' representatives elsewhere. She posed for selfies with workers and waved to supporters, AFP reported.
"Everyone knows what side Emmanuel Macron is on -- he is on the side of the corporations," Le Pen said. "I am on the workers' side, here in the car park, not in restaurants in Amiens."
Macron said after Le Pen's stop that he would also visit the site. He told angry workers at the factory that the only reason she had come was "because I'm here." As the following clip shows, it was not a good idea.
Macron spoke to the strikers for almost an hour, some still booing throughout, but many engaging with him, while France 2 television’s special correspondent broadcast behind the candidate from a temporary set they’d erected.
Patrice Sinoquet from the CFDT union, who met with Macron earlier in the day, said 90 percent of his members will be voting for Le Pen. “Macron is the worst of free-market politics,” said Clement Pons, a 32-year-old unemployed man waiting outside the town-center meeting. “He’s a globalist who will kill the working class. He makes me want to throw up. I don’t understand his ideas.”
Chantal Flahaut, a 57-year-old assembly line worker on the Whirlpool picket line, said she’s been striking on and off all week and she’s so sick of the situation in France that she didn’t even register to vote on Sunday. Her T-shirt said “Whirlpool Manufactures Unemployment.”
“I am so disgusted,” she said. “Macron is in favor of big companies like ours. Stop giving aid to multinational billionaires and give us our money.”
The theatrics continued on Twitter, where Macron said that Le Pen had spent "10 minutes with her supporters in a car park in front of the cameras" whereas he had spent "an hour and a half with union representatives and no media".
"Come May 7, everyone will make their choice," he added.
Benjamin Griveaux, an aide on the Macron campaign, said Le Pen was focusing on political stunts rather than trying to address voters’ problems. “If this is about tweets and selfies, then she hasn’t understood what’s at stake,” Griveaux said. “She’s fueling her political ambitions with misery and suffering. What has she proposed? Nothing. We are trying to deal with the issues.”
Macron, who created his own centrist movement, was to hold a rally later in nearby Arras, a city in the northern rustbelt where Le Pen topped the first round of voting. On Monday, Macron drew criticism for what some saw as a triumphalist speech and then a celebratory dinner at a Paris bistro on Sunday.
Socialist Party boss Jean-Christophe Cambadelis told French radio: "He was smug. He wrongly thought that it was a done deal."
Macron served as economy minister in the Socialist government, after working as an M&A banker at Rothschild, before quitting in August to launch his presidential bid.