PARIS – After “the battle of Whirlpool,” when Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron both went hunting for France’s blue-collar vote at a threatened home appliance factory, the presidential candidates clashed over fish in a return to more traditional campaigning on Thursday.
The anti-European Union far-right populist Le Pen was up before dawn to cruise aboard a fishing trawler on the Mediterranean. The sea trip was her latest television-friendly effort to portray herself as the candidate of France’s workers against the centrist former banker and economy minister Macron, whom she paints as the candidate of the financial, political and pro-EU elite.
“My grandfather was a fisherman, so I am in my element,” Le Pen said after her pre-dawn voyage aboard the “Grace of God 2” trawler.
She said France will take back control of its maritime policies if she is elected in the second-round vote on May 7. She again tore into Macron’s more pro-market, free-trade economic program. Macron fired back on Twitter, saying her proposals to take France out of the EU would sink France’s fishing industry.
“Have a nice trip. Europe’s exit she proposes, it’s the end of French fishing. Think about it,” he tweeted, before a scheduled visit to the ethnically mixed Paris suburb of Sarcelles and a national television appearance Thursday night.
Many voters can’t stomach either candidate. French high school students scuffled with riot police in a cloud of tear gas during a Paris protest in which they pained Le Pen as an extreme nationalist with dangerous views and Macron as too cozy with the finance world.
Students blocked entrances to some high schools and marched through eastern Paris to the Bastille neighborhood, the heart of the 1789 French revolution. Most of the protesters were peaceful, but a few clashed with the riot police ringing the crowds.
Many of the students aren’t old enough to vote, yet they reflect a chunk of the French electorate that is expected to sit out the May 7 election, either because they dislike both candidates or because they assume Macron will win.
While Macron has been considered the favorite for the runoff, pollsters have long noted that a very low turnout could propel Le Pen into the presidency.
Le Pen may have hit a turning point with her surprise visit to the threatened Whirlpool clothes-dryer factory in northern France. The campaign maneuver put Macron on the defensive and prompted him to also meet angry Whirlpool workers later the same day.
On Thursday, newspapers and commentators debated which of the two candidates scored the most points in the remarkable Whirlpool drama that highlighted their clash of styles and which was broadcast live on French news channels.
“War is declared,” read a front-page headline of the daily Liberation.
Former presidential candidate François Bayrou — a Macron ally — awarded victory to the centrist, saying Macron showed courage by spending over an hour trying to reason with workers at the plant in Amiens.
Bayrou, speaking Thursday on BFM television, said Macron’s impromptu visit — his attempt to take back the initiative after Le Pen stole his thunder by popping up before him at the Whirlpool factory gates — could have been “very bad for him.”
Macron was whistled and booed when he first arrived. But he stood his ground, patiently and at times passionately debating workers in often heated exchanges about how to stop French jobs from moving abroad.
“Arriving to whistles, he [Macron] left shaking hands” and showed his character, Bayrou said.