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French Front-Runner Campaigns Against Himself

The centrist Emmanuel Macron is said to have an easy route to the presidency. Maybe he does. But voters can be fickle.

The conventional wisdom has it that Emmanuel Macron won't have to break a sweat to win the May 7 presidential election runoff against Marine Le Pen. But first he'll have to survive his own campaign.

Stung by criticism that he is the candidate of elites and the beneficiaries of globalization, Wednesday's campaign schedule was meant to demonstrate Macron's common touch. Instead, it was a debacle.

Macron traveled 75 miles north of Paris to Amiens, a picturesque town with an awe-inspiring Gothic cathedral. That's in the heart of the Somme region, where the global appliance-maker Whirlpool Corp. has a factory that is due to shut down in 2018 as production moves to Poland.

Macron hoped to visit the workers there, but Whirlpool's management worried that the globalist politician would get a hostile reception. So they shunted him off to the town's Chamber of Commerce, where he met with a few union representatives.

His nationalist opponent didn't miss a beat. While Macron was at his meeting in town, Le Pen made a surprise visit to Whirlpool's parking lot, where she was surrounded by cameras and employees shouting "Marine! Marine!" She launched into speech mode, renewing her promises to prevent the factory shutdown and to make sure the state protects the workers' jobs. Then she turned her fire on Macron. Her opponent was, she practically spat, over a mile away eating petit-fours.

Le Pen is a mediocre debater in a formal setting, but give her a parking lot, a camera and some factory workers and few opponents stand a chance. The footage from Amiens was captured on TV and went viral. Thirty minutes later, she was back in her car and on to the next stop. Macron tried to save the day, but was booed when he turned up at the factory. He had to shout to be heard and promised to visit the workers again after the election.

This particular Battle of the Somme won't make history, but it did say something about the front-runner's experience as a candidate, and perhaps foreshadows the troubles he might have as a president grappling with entrenched interests and widespread discontent. It also wasn't his first questionable call since his first-round victory on Sunday.

Eyebrows arched at Macron's decision to celebrate that triumph at a quintessential Parisian brasserie in the chic Montparnasse district. The restaurant, La Rotonde, isn't just any Parisian eatery with fragrant escargot and tender roast duck; it was a favorite of Macron's former boss and mentor, President Francois Hollande, who celebrated his 2011 victory in the Socialist Party primary there.

Challenged about his culinary choice, Macron irritably told journalists that if he's not allowed to have a little celebration with his closest supporters, "Then you have understood nothing about life." His opponents pounced.

The meal drew comparisons to a much-criticized celebration by former President Nicolas Sarkozy at the glitzy Fouquet's on the Champs-Elysees after his 2007 victory. But Fouquet's is a fixture of the patrician Right Bank, Macron's supporters protested, while La Rotonde reflects the free-spirited Left Bank! Too late; contemporary populist politics overpowered hoary left-bank, right-bank distinctions, just as it has buried the categories of left and right in today's France.

"We saw this bling-bling France coming back," Sebastien Chenu, a Le Pen ally told Europe 1 radio. "It's the hallmark of Emmanuel Macron: start-ups, champagne, glitter. No, thank you." From the center right, a Republican Party mayor denounced Macron for displaying an "indecent attitude at a time when the extreme right is in the second round."

Most polls give Macron a 20-percentage-point lead over Le Pen. As my Bloomberg News colleagues Helene Fouquet and Mark Deen wrote on Tuesday, even if turnout drops to the 1969 low of 64 percent, Le Pen would need a big swing of support to spring a surprise. So maybe Macron really doesn't have to worry about a few stumbles.

But as both Sarkozy and Hollande discovered after bruising tumbles from political grace, French voters have a habit of falling out of love with politicians they put on a pedestal. 

(Corrects year of the lowest voter turnout to 1969 in penultimate paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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