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French presidential foes take spin battle to tumble-drier factory

PARIS (Reuters) - Far-right leader Marine Le Pen sought to steal presidential rival Emmanuel Macron’s thunder on Wednesday with a surprise visit to striking workers in northern France, aiming to wrong-foot him while he was campaigning in the same town.

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Visiting the site of a strike at the tumble-drier Whirlpool factory, which is due to close next year, Le Pen pushed her anti-globalisation agenda and attacked Macron who she said was on the side of the employers.

“Emmanuel Macron is with the oligarchs, with the Medef (the employers’ association) ... I am with the French workers,” she declared in televised comments.

She staged her unexpected visit to the Whirlpool picket lines as Macron, her rival for the presidency in an election on May 7, was just a few kms (miles) away in his hometown of Amiens, meeting union representatives from the plant at a local chamber of commerce.

French television channel BFM TV showed him talking with workers’ union delegates in a grey meeting room at the chamber of commerce while Le Pen posed for selfies on the site of the strike itself.

“When I heard that Emmanuel Macron was coming here and did not plan to meet the workers, did not plan to come to the picket line but would shelter himself who knows where in the chamber of commerce ... I considered it was such a sign of contempt for the Whirlpool workers that I decided to ... come here and see you,” she said.

Opinion polls see the 39-year-old Macron, a centrist ex-banker, easily beating Le Pen of the anti-immigrant and anti-Europe National Front, on May 7.

The Whirlpool factory in Amiens is set to shut down in June 2018 while the group beefs up its production in Poland.

Macron hit back, accusing Le Pen of using the industrial trouble at Whirlpool for her own political ends. He told reporters he had been trying to find a practical solution to the issue in his discussions with the unions.

“Mrs Le Pen is using the situation for political ends, stirring up crowds on a parking lot,” he said. “If she’s elected, this company will close.”

He added that he would visit the workers with union officials later on Wednesday - a call which had not been on his official schedule.

Asked about the Whirpool site closure on a TV show this month, Macron said: “A presidential campaign is not about grand-standing slogans and promises that can’t be kept.”

Reporting by Ingrid Melander, Myriam Rivet and Michel Rose; Editing by Brian Love and Richard Balmforth