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Is French presidential hopeful Macron the Clinton to Le Pen's Trump? Or is he actually an Obama?

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Currently the favorite to win the French presidency, Emmanuel Macron is positioning himself as a globalist – but also someone who will help those whom the EU and free trade have left behind.

Emmanuel Macron of the political movement 'En Marche' attends a prime-time televised debate for the candidates at French 2017 presidential election in La Plaine Saint-Denis, France, on April 4.
Lionel Bonaventure/Pool/Reuters
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Frederic Chanterelle clearly feels like a loser of globalization.

On a drab day this week outside the Whirlpool offices here, the union leader is seething about the Michigan-based company’s decision to close down the appliance factory and relocate to Poland. “Globalization means always more for the strong and less for the weak,” he says, as employees who will lose their jobs by next year file out from their morning shift. “We always have to tighten our belts. They don’t have a belt.”

Welcome to the “rust belt” of France, where blue collar workers, like their American counterparts in Michigan, or Pennsylvania and Ohio, are ripe for the “economic patriotism” of Marine Le Pen, the anti-EU, anti-immigrant candidate out front in French presidential elections.

Even in France, Western elections are being viewed through the prism of the 2016 race in America between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. And if Ms. Le Pen, buoyed by the despair and frustration of those left behind, is the Mr. Trump of the French election, the role of the globalist Mrs. Clinton falls to her chief rival, Emmanuel Macron, who hails from this former industrial city. Indeed, in the second presidential debate held last night, he stood out among his opponents by declaring outright that the European project is in his “heart.”

Following that logic, Mr. Macron will easily lose the French rust belt, just as Hillary Clinton did in the US. But unlike Clinton, he is positioning himself as an agent of change: one who, his supporters say, takes the best of the right and the left to boost all of France. They say the better American comparison is to the “Yes We Can” message that resonated during President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

But can the young Macron, never elected to office before, win over a weary France with a message of hope?

Macron's offering

Macron was born in Amiens, but moved to Paris and joined the elite education circuit. He reportedly made a small fortune working at Rothschild Bank before Socialist President François Hollande poached him to become economy minister. But in office, Macron – who is often described as having an Anglo-Saxon spirit, putting emphasis on entrepreneurship – angered the left-wing branch of the party with a reformist agenda, including loosening bans on Sunday store hours and criticizing France’s infamous 35-hour workweek.

As a candidate today, Macron is touting himself as post-ideological, with a platform that draws from the left and from the right. He wants more welfare for the worst-off, but he also wants to reduce public spending and keep France’s budget deficit under 3 percent, as mandated by the European Union. He wants to make it easier to start a business and says he can push unemployment from 10 percent, where it has hovered throughout President Hollande's term, down to 7 percent.

But at this factory, whose closure is planned for June 2018, his message is hard to hear. Cecile Deliprou, a mechanical engineer and union representative for the white-collar workforce at Whirlpool, is angry about injustice: dislocation is only about maximizing profits, she says. “It will be hard. The medium seniority in the factory is up to 25 years. That means we have spent in this factory more than half our working life. That means we have given to Whirlpool the best half of our working life.”

Le Pen is polling her highest in former industrial areas like these. A Cevipof/Ipsos poll for France 3 last month showed 35 percent in this region, Hauts-de-France, will vote for Le Pen in the first round of the election on April 23, compared to 27 percent nationally. Macron pulls in 24 percent in the region, and just below 26 percent nationally.

Ms. Deliprou won’t say who she is voting for. But she doesn’t believe in a simplistic message, and says no candidate is offering a plausible way forward. “It’s like Trump. It’s only promises. If you want to believe it, OK, that’s your choice to believe. But it’s not realistic.”

In the center of Amiens, “En Marche” volunteers are standing outside a department store handing out fliers. Olivier Williame, a teacher who volunteers for the campaign, says Macron’s message is more complicated than Le Pen’s. But he is trying to communicate that blue collar workers would be worse off if Le Pen were successful in taking France out of the EU or the eurozone. In contrast, he says Macron’s platform puts emphasis on retraining industrial workers.

“Macron thinks about globalization with a realistic view,” Mr. Williame says. “He says we should try to accompany the employees losing the jobs, rather than trying to save absolutely these jobs when the plants are closing.”

Macron's movement has faced much criticism for being out of touch with the rust belt, just like Clinton's was. Lex Paulson, a professor at SciencesPo who is a former organizer with the Obama campaign and now volunteers with Macron’s “En Marche” movement, disagrees. He says he sees in Macron's movement more in common with that of Obama, including drawing huge numbers of volunteers who'd never before been politically engaged. “Hillary Clinton goes to Ohio, and there is absolutely no way she positions herself as a candidate of change,” he says. “Emmanuel Macron is creating a change and a major disruption in the political system, the way Hillary Clinton was the opposite of.”

'Things are moving'

Amiens, famed for its Gothic cathedral, is a story of deindustrialization today. But it’s also a story of transformation underway, says Laurence Rataux, who heads local development office for Amiens municipality. Only 13 percent of jobs in the city are industrial; the rest are public sector or service jobs. Amazon is opening a new distribution center here. While she says the Whirlpool closure was a shock, especially for the workers directly impacted, that is only one side. “Things are moving,” she says.

The mayor of Amiens, Brigitte Foure, worries that the Whirlpool workers will flock to Le Pen – or massively abstain. “I feel the workers are disappointed and beaten down because they say ‘We worked hard and they are closing our factory and only for finances,’” she says. “They take refuge in the National Front.”

And yet, she doubts that Macron is the man to make inroads, even though this is where he launched “En Marche” a year ago this week, after leaving the Socialist government. “He launched his campaign here, but just as publicity to show that he is not just a banker from Paris, but from the French heartland,” Mayor Foure says.

Her comments point to one of Macron’s standing challenges. While he is in a dead heat with Le Pen, and polling far ahead of her in a hypothetical runoff between the two on May 7, he has much “softer” support than she does, says David Webber, a professor at Insead business school outside Paris who researches comparative politics and integration.

The “Macron phenomenon” has gotten wind from the collapse of the two parties that form the mainstream political establishment – neither of which is polling to make the runoff. While Macron draws voters from the right and left, transcending party lines, that platform can also make him appear unconvincing and thin on substance, especially with no party apparatus behind him.

“If there is any kind of black swan event, some huge financial scandal, surrounding Macron, for example, things can look very differently on April 23,” Mr. Webber says.

Mayor Foure says she feels change underfoot amid an unpredictable election that could set France off in vastly different directions. “I feel like I’m at a crossroads of civilizations and political life,” she says. “There are those who fear globalization and are fragile and those who say it is global here, we have to deal with it and go on.”

And her role at the local level? “We have to maintain our openness of spirit without being naive. And I’m really convinced we have to talk to each other, meet each other. It’s not by closing off and putting walls, with Mexico or France and other European countries. This is not life,” she says. “If we can live together in a town the size of Amiens, this will translate at the polls.”

Webber says the outcome of the US presidential election – along with Brexit and the rise of populism across Europe – might shape the mood in favor of Macron. “I think the Brexit result in the UK and election of Trump in the US are having more of an integrative effect on the remainder on the EU than a disintegrative one,” he says.