PARIS • France's presidential contest found an unlikely arena: a tumble dryer factory in the country's north where, if far-right candidate Marine Le Pen did not quite humiliate her rival, Mr Emmanuel Macron, she surely upstaged him.
Workers at the plant, run by Whirlpool in Mr Macron's hometown, Amiens, have been striking to prevent the factory from closing.
Far from being welcomed as a favoured son, Mr Macron was jeered and booed by a hostile crowd as tyres burned, while Ms Le Pen paid a surprise visit and was greeted with hugs and selfies as activists with her National Front party distributed croissants.
Their separate visits, covered live on French television, showed how Ms Le Pen's anti-globalisation message resonates in regions struggling with factory closures and the loss of jobs, as well as the hostility that many workers feel for Mr Macron, a centrist former investment banker who wants to loosen labour rules.
The contrasting styles, policy approaches and loyalties of the candidates, who face each other in a run-off election on May 7, were on full display. Mr Macron met first with a few union representatives from the factory at the local chamber of commerce; Ms Le Pen beat him to the plant itself.
Mr Macron said that he could not stop companies from firing workers, but he would fight to find a buyer for the plant or to retrain workers. A woman told him they were tired of governments from the establishment making promises and doing nothing for them. "I'm not the left, I'm not the right," Mr Macron shouted over the swarm of angry workers.
Ms Le Pen promised to save the plant and the nearly 300 jobs there that are supposed to be shifted to Poland next year, and said she would discourage firms from moving jobs abroad with a 35 per cent tax on any products imported from plants that are outsourced from France. She attacked Mr Macron as a proponent of "savage globalisation".
With polls indicating Mr Macron will win the run-off against Ms Le Pen by a comfortable margin, he has also taken heat for seemingly acting as if victory were already in the bag. Rivals and potential allies alike criticised his Sunday night visit to an elegant Parisian restaurant for celebrations after coming out tops in the first round of voting.
The visit to the Left Bank brasserie made him an easy target for Ms Le Pen's campaign, which seized on the incident to portray the former investment banker as a member of an arrogant political elite out of touch with the people. After that incident, Mr Macron laid low for several days, while Ms Le Pen's campaign went on the offensive.
NYTIMES, BLOOMBERG, REUTERS