French presidential frontrunner Emmanuel Macron was ambushed on the campaign trail on Wednesday by far-right rival Marine Le Pen, with the rivals for the Elysée Palace clashing over globalisation and compounding a shaky start for Mr Macron in the final two weeks of the election race.
The rivals’ visits to a factory in Amiens in northern France came on what was the first day of vigorous campaigning for both after they led voting in the election’s first round on Sunday. They are fighting to become president in a run-off vote on May 7, with Mr Macron a strong favourite.
Mr Macron had gone to Amiens, his hometown, to visit a plant owned by Whirlpool, the white goods manufacturer, which has been at the centre of a debate about the challenges of globalisation. Nearly 290 jobs are set to be cut next year when the US group shifts production to Poland.
Mr Macron met union members to talk about how, as president, he would support the business and retrain workers, trying to sell a message that his government would use the free market for the benefit of all.
But even as Mr Macron was in the town to talk to union officials, Ms Le Pen blindsided his team by turning up at the plant itself to hammer home her message that free trade was to blame for France’s de-industrialisation.
“I am the candidate, above all, for the French people who do not want to be stripped of their jobs, of their purchasing power and who do not want to be put in unfair competition with low-cost countries,” said Ms Le Pen.
Florian Philippot, a vice-president of the National Front (FN), told LCI television: “With Marine, the Whirlpool plant in Amiens will not close.”
While Mr Macron is still expected to win on May 7, the former Rothschild banker has had a wobbly start to the final two weeks of campaigning.
He was roundly criticised for celebrating his success in the first round of the election at La Rotonde, a chic Paris restaurant, with friends and celebrities. The FN said it showed he was part of the “oligarchy”.
A survey by Harris Interactive released on Wednesday showed that 61 per cent of French voters thought Ms Le Pen had started the final stretch of campaigning well while 52 per cent thought Mr Macron had faired poorly.
Earlier in the day, Jacques Attali, an economist and confidant of Mr Macron, added to the controversy over the Whirlpool plant, saying the potential loss of jobs was just an “anecdote” and should be seen in the “larger context of job creation”.
Mr Macron’s campaign team went into damage limitation mode, rounding on Mr Attali.
“Contemptible!” tweeted Richard Ferrand, the Macron campaign manager.
“He belongs to another world. He should say there,” said Benjamin Griveaux, the candidate’s spokesman.
Mr Macron’s lead in the polls remains commanding: the latest polls by Ifop suggest that he will take 61 per cent of the votes in the second round, compared with 39 per cent for Ms Le Pen.
Endorsements for Mr Macron continued to come from across the political mainstream on Wednesday. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president, said he would vote for Mr Macron in a bid to keep Mr Le Pen from power.
President François Hollande, as well as nearly all of the defeated candidates, have already urged their supporters to vote for Mr Macron. The notable exception is far-left former candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has yet to make a choice.