When France's presidential election turned into a political boxing match this week at the gates of an appliance factory threatened with closure, the far-right populist Marine Le Pen showed that she wields a mean right hook. Her centrist rival, Emmanuel Macron, a political neophyte contesting his first election, demonstrated that he can take a solid punch to the chin.
Before the chaotic scenes Wednesday at a Whirlpool clothes-dryer plant in northern France, the election campaign had no single dominant theme. But all that changed when Le Pen, followed closely by Macron, made back-to-back impromptu campaign stops at the plant to woo France's blue-collar vote. Against the backdrop of burning tires and angry workers, the diametrically opposed styles and programs of the two candidates in the winner-takes-all second-round vote was laid bare, with crystal-clear clarity.
Le Pen's closed borders against Macron's open ones. Le Pen's France that would pull up the drawbridge with the European Union against a future of ever-closer ties between France and its neighbors. Le Pen's promised economic protectionism against Macron's defense of free trade. Le Pen's selfie-snapping populism against Macron's refusal to simply tell the workers what they so desperately wanted to hear: that their jobs can be saved as Whirlpool shifts production to Poland.
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In her second presidential contest after placing third in 2012, the 48-year-old Le Pen deployed all her political experience to spring a campaign trap that her 39-year-old rival fell headfirst into, but then managed to extract himself from, with barely a ruffle to his suit and tie. Instead of becoming Macron's Waterloo, his quick thinking and dogged determination in trying to reason with the disgruntled workers for over an hour turned the match into a stalemate.
A stalemate that spoke volumes about them both.
Having led a largely lackluster campaign before the first-round vote Sunday that propelled her and Macron into round two on May 7, Le Pen has rediscovered her mojo. Bruised by first-round television debates where she was savaged by the sharp-tongued far-left populist Jean-Luc Melenchon, now eliminated, she is outsmarting Macron, so far at least, in the use of TV. Likewise, now rid of Francois Fillon, the conservative whose financial scandals dominated the initial campaign, Le Pen now has a chance to turn the election into a debate about France, its future and her argument that one of the founding EU nations would be better off freed of the bloc's constraints.
By popping up at the Whirlpool plant while Macron was across town meeting with the workers' union leaders, Le Pen was devastatingly effective. TV news channels switched live to the surprise visit, showing her taking selfies and dispensing hugs and kisses with workers at the factory gates. It gave her a platform to project herself as the candidate of France's workers in an era of chronic unemployment and to highlight her pledge, repeated again Wednesday, that she wouldn't let the factory close if elected. Macron, shown simultaneously at his meeting in a nondescript room, looked every inch the aloof technocrat: in the wrong place at just the right time for Le Pen.
"I'm not eating little cakes with a few representatives who, in reality, represent only themselves," she sniffed. Pow! Take that, Macron.
She used television to her advantage again Thursday, getting up before dawn to take a ride aboard a Mediterranean fishing trawler — candidate-in-action images played over and over on morning TV, in the absence of anything fresh from Macron, who didn't campaign until mid-afternoon.
Le Pen has said all along that among the 11 first-round candidates, she wanted to face Macron in round two. At Whirlpool's gates, it became clear why: The former investment banker and economy minister is, for her, the readiest canvas for her black-or-white assertion that the election is a clash between two polar opposites.
Her goal isn't simply to swing as many Fillon and Melenchon voters as possible to her side but to persuade enough of them not to vote at all on May 7, in hopes that her reservoir of committed voters will outnumber those who'll back Macron, many reluctantly, simply to keep her extremism from reaching the Elysee Palace.
Outflanked by Le Pen at Whirlpool, Macron faced his toughest campaign test yet. Failure to follow her example and rush from his meeting with union leaders to the factory itself would have made him look uncaring and out of touch — doubly so since the plant is in the town where Macron was born, Amiens.
Going, however, was also a risk. He seized it with both hands.
The snap decision seemed, at first, to have backfired spectacularly when Macron was derisively whistled at and booed. For a few tense minutes, it seemed as though Le Pen had landed a KO. Had Macron retreated to the safety of his car, the campaign front-runner could have crashed and burned on live TV.
But he plowed on.
The workers were a hostile audience for Macron's arguments that the state can't stop jobs moving abroad but can retrain the workers who lose them. By facing their frustration, by patiently, at times passionately, debating them, he at least seemed to win some respect — and without making off-the-cuff campaign promises that later, if installed in the presidential palace, he might regret.
"There is no miracle recipe," he said.
Most important for Macron, his recovery from Le Pen's punch allows him to fight another day.
And Le Pen still needs a knockout.