French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen hopped on to a fishing boat at dawn on Thursday as she pursued a guerrilla-style campaign that has upstaged frontrunner Emmanuel Macron.
It was still dark when Le Pen boarded the trawler at the small port of Grau-du-Roi on the south coast for a four-hour trip out to sea, seeking to portray herself as the protector of small businesses against the man she says embodies “unbridled globalisation”.
Le Pen stole a march on 39-year-old Macron on Wednesday by making an unannounced visit to a Whirlpool factory in northern France where the US appliances giant is threatening to partially outsource production to Poland.
Her brief visit to pose for selfies with workers forced Macron, who was visiting the town where the factory is based, to hastily change his plans and also go to the site.
The besuited Macron spent more than an hour debating with workers amid chaotic scenes as dozens of TV camera teams crowded around him.
– On the attack –
Le Pen, 48, was back on the attack on Thursday saying her rival, a former banker, supported “an ultra-liberal economy” and “total deregulation”.
Macron hit back in a Twitter message that reminded voters of the National Front (FN) candidate’s pledge to pull out of the eurozone and hold a referendum on France’s membership of the European Union.
“Madame Le Pen has gone fishing. Have a good trip. Withdrawing from Europe as she proposes would mean the end of the French fishing industry. Think about that,” he wrote.
The latest poll suggests Macron will defeat Le Pen by a margin of 21 points in the runoff on May 7, and figures from France’s traditional left and right — both absent from the second round — have backed him too.
But Macron, a former economy minister who has never held elected office, faced criticism after topping the vote in the first round that he made a complacent start to his second-round campaign.
Le Pen has tried to capitalise by popping up in industrially depressed areas of northern France before the journey to the Mediterranean coast.
Later Thursday, she will hold a major rally in the Riviera city of Nice, a rightwing stronghold where she will try to win over voters who preferred Francois Fillon — the conservative candidate who was knocked out in Sunday’s first round.
– ‘No respite’ –
Macron, stung by the criticism that he was not taking the fight to his rival, told supporters on Wednesday: “I will not allow her a centimetre of space, not a second of respite, not an ounce of energy.”
The “Battle of Amiens” at the Whirlpool factory — as leftwing daily Liberation called it — was the standout moment of the campaign so far, even though the candidates were not at the site at the same time.
Le Pen’s supporters seized on comments from high-profile economist Jacques Attali, who backs Macron, that the Whirlpool issue was a mere “anecdote” of the campaign.
There was a reminder of the legal woes surrounding her campaign when a source in the French investigation into alleged FN expenses fraud at the European Parliament said the sum involved was now believed to be nearly five million euros ($5.5 million), more than twice an initial estimate.
The parliament accuses the FN of using funds meant for parliamentary assistants to pay staff including a bodyguard to work in France between 2012 and 2017, which contravenes the assembly’s rules.
In March, Le Pen invoked her immunity as an MEP in refusing to submit to questioning by French prosecutors until after the election.