By Matthew Dalton

AMIENS, France--French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron is one of this industrial city's most famous natives. But when Whirlpool Corp. said it would shut its factory here and move production to Poland, it was one of his rivals, far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, who grabbed the spotlight.

Ms. Le Pen excoriated the American appliance maker and pledged a 35% tax on imports from Whirlpool and other companies that shift manufacturing outside France. "We can no longer accept this massive deindustrialization," she said in a video message to workers.

With days to go before the start of France's presidential elections, Ms. Le Pen's antiestablishment and euroskeptic message is resonating with voters here and in other struggling industrial cities, where years of declining fortunes have fueled deep anger with the country's political elite and the European Union.

"We need someone to defend us workers," says Gilles Jourdain, who started at the Whirlpool factory 39 years ago. "I have never voted Le Pen, but why not?"

Public-opinion surveys show Ms. Le Pen, leader of the National Front, running neck-and-neck with Mr. Macron for the lead in a field of 11 candidates competing in Sunday's first round. The mainstream conservative, François Fillon, and far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, are close behind.

The top two finishers will face off in a second vote in May. Polls indicate that Ms. Le Pen would lose to Mr. Macron, Mr. Fillon or Mr. Mélenchon in that final round.

Whether she wins or not, the strength of Ms. Le Pen's following shows she has built a potent political force in rural and industrial areas to challenge the French establishment in the years ahead.

France's blue-collar regions are a major weak point for Mr. Macron and the country's other mainstream candidates. An April poll by survey firm Elabe found that in the election's first round, 48% of factory workers would vote for Ms. Le Pen, compared with 16% for Mr. Macron.

Around Amiens, factory jobs have been steadily draining away for years. In 2014, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. closed up shop, idling more than 1,000 workers. Now, Whirlpool is moving on, too, to an EU country with lower wages.

Mr. Macron's response to France's economic woes has been a vocal defense of trade as well as the EU and its common market. The campaign platform of the 39-year-old former investment banker says the "causes of deindustrialization are to be found at home and not in globalization."

A former economy minister, Mr. Macron says he wants to shake up France's rigid labor market, making it easier for companies to hire and fire workers, cut corporate taxes and invest in research and development to make manufacturers more competitive.

Ms. Le Pen's National Front has argued that only ditching the euro and going back to the French franc can revive French industry. A modest devaluation of the new currency would help France regain the cost competitiveness it lost to Germany over the past decade, when Berlin's labor-market overhauls kept wages growing far more slowly than in the rest of the eurozone, party officials have said. The move, combined with the threat of punitive import tariffs, would stem France's industrial losses to Germany and Eastern Europe, they say.

Mr. Macron--who grew up the son of doctors in Amiens before leaving at age 16 for elite schools in Paris--has been reluctant to weigh in on the looming Whirlpool plant closure. In atelevision interview, he said: "What will I do? I'll go in a truck and say, 'With me, it won't close?' We know that it's not true."

Mr. Macron also urged Whirlpool to find a buyer for the factory so the workers don't lose their jobs.

The candidate says he discovered his "civic conscience" in Amiens. But his plans ring hollow here and in industrial communities across France. Since the country began using the euro in 1999, industrial production has fallen 10%. In Germany, it is 32% higher.

France's industrial losses have often come from production shifting to the eastern half of the EU, where labor costs are a fraction of what they are in France. Industrial output in Poland, which is in the EU but doesn't use the euro, has more than doubled since the start of the common currency.

"Europe was a mistake, a very big mistake," says Delphine Voisin, a forklift driver who has worked at the Whirlpool plant for 27 years. Ms. Voisin said she is considering voting for Ms. Le Pen.

In her videotaped message to Whirlpool workers, Ms. Le Pen said: "We must break with this ultraliberal model that has been imposed on us by our leaders for years."

When Stéphane Demory, a wiry 47-year-old, got his permanent job at the Goodyear plant near Amiens in 2001, he says he thought he would be employed for life. In 2014, however, the Akron, Ohio-based company shut the massive plant, saying it was too costly compared with operations in Germany and Eastern Europe.

Workers held two Goodyear executives hostage at the factory for 30 hours to negotiate bigger payouts for those losing their jobs.

For Mr. Demory, who was laid off, the episode revived bad memories. Mr. Demory's father lost his job when local manufacturing giant Saint Frères retrenched in the 1980s, throwing the economy into turmoil.

Mr. Demory's marriage fell apart as the Goodyear plant closed. After sending résumés to more than 100 employers, he is still looking for work.

He blames current French President François Hollande and Mr. Macron, his aide at the time, for not preventing the closure.

"Everyone says you have to go with the Socialist Party, you have to go with the right," Mr. Demory says. "I'd like Marine Le Pen for one time. What will it cost? Nothing. Five years."

Others in Amiens say they can't support Ms. Le Pen's tough anti-immigration message. "National Front, it's racism, pure and simple, " says Didier Hérisson, a former union leader at the Goodyear plant. He says he'll vote for the far-left Mr. Mélenchon, who wants to renegotiate the terms of European Union treaties.

At the Whirlpool plant, the company, labor unions and the French authorities are trying to find a buyer for the factory, something that could save jobs. That process is required under a law passed by the Hollande government.

Whirlpooldecided to shut the plant because it has been losing money for years, a spokesman said. The company is working hard to find a buyer for the factory, he said.

Phillippe Theveniaud, a labor leader and local official, says that if a mainstream candidate like Mr. Macron is elected and nothing is done to help workers in places like Amiens, Ms. Le Pen and the National Front will be even stronger in the next elections.

"National Front won't have 30%, but 60% next time," Mr. Theveniaud said. "People will say, 'We are tricked again. He proposes nothing new. It's the same thing.'"

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 20, 2017 05:44 ET (09:44 GMT)

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