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In France, an industrial town grapples with a shifting economy

An economy in transition has made a historically industrial town a Petri dish of French politics. The mayor is trying to bridge the gaps between those who feel left behind and those rolling with the changes.

Employees at the Whirlpool factory in Amiens shuffle through the beeping turnstile as they make the afternoon shift change. They build clothes dryers here, at least for now. One of the local union representatives, Frederic Chantrelle, and his coworkers wonder why they keep working at all though. Whirlpool will close the site next year.

The company is moving its French operation to Poland, eliminating the 286 jobs in Amiens. Chantrelle doesn't think the new plant will last long there either though.

"Tomorrow it will be Asia, then Bangladesh. Globalization is always more for the big people and less for us little ones," he said. "We always have to tighten our belts, and some of us don't have any more belt." 

Watch video 04:42

France: Globalization versus protectionism

Factory closures aren't new for Amiens. Nearly 1,200 locals lost their jobs when the American-owned tire manufacturer Goodyear shut down its plant here in 2013. This region in the north of France was once a production center for textiles and automobile parts, but those jobs have also dwindled since the 1970s.

However, at the same time industrial jobs are leaving the town of 135,000, Brigitte Foure (photo above), the mayor, says it's not exactly a spiral of desolation. Amiens is not dying. The town is grappling with adapting to a shifting economy. 

Foure says Amiens has for years been transitioning from heavy industrialization to telecommunications and tech services. Industry today comprises only 13 percent of the local economy.

Read: France's fractured Left visible in industrial Lille

Online retailer Amazon is opening its largest European distribution center here, which is expected to create up to 1,500 jobs. Later this year, the town expects a new commercial center with 40 shops.

Listen to audio 06:21

Inside Europe: Voters in France's rust belt voice anger at globalization

Despite closures, the town's unemployment rate has dropped drastically since 2012, when it was at 17.7 percent, well above the then national average, just over 10 percent. Today Amiens sits at just a little more than the national rate, at 9.7 percent.

Promises 'like Trump'

The market conversion has made Amiens somewhat of a Petri dish of politics, with those who feel left behind, those who are rolling with the changes, and a centrist mayor trying to bridge the gaps.

Chantrelle, who works on an assembly line, says he and his wife are already barely getting by on their paychecks. 

"These days a salary is only for surviving, not living," he said. "We're working for nothing, and we're fed up. It will show in the vote. People will vote extreme in the first round." 

Chantrelle is talking about April 23, the first round of voting in French presidential elections in which National Front candidate Marine Le Pen is neck-and-neck in the polls with political amateur Emmanuel Macron. 

Le Pen rails against globalization and American-style capitalism as enemies of France and promises to keep jobs in the country, as Donald Trump has in the US. She uses factory closures and job migration as a lightening rod to rally supporters, especially those facing tough times like the workers here.

Cecile Delpirou stands in front of the Whirlpool plant in Amiens, France

Cecile Delpirou says employees have given the best working years of their lives to Whirlpool

Cecile Delpirou, a French Whirlpool employee for 25 years, feels forgotten by politics in a globalized world. She knows how she will vote, but also doesn't think it's worth much.

"They all speak about things to do, but most is not realistic. It's like Trump," she said. "It's only promises."

'Bandits eating foie gras'

Macron, more than any of the others, should not forget Amiens since it was his hometown before he moved to Paris as a teenager. But he hasn't even been to visit the Whirlpool factory - just an hour from Paris - since the closure was announced in January. Chantrelle says: "He must have lost Amiens' address." 

Read: National Front tones down manifesto ahead of presidential elections

The union requested several times to meet with Macron, but has gotten no response. "He knows it's hopeless," Chantrelle said.

Chantrelle said he won't vote National Front, but he doesn't entirely disagree with Le Pen. In any case, he is so disillusioned with politics that he doesn't think any of the main candidates actually care about their plight.

Emmanuel Macron at a campaign stop in Dijon, France

Macron hasn't spent much time in his hometown since he left as a teenager

"These people are disconnected from reality. They don't know the factory life. The misery of our families. They're a bunch of bandits eating foie gras with silver spoons," he said. 

The mayor says the shutdown is to appease shareholders and not for legitimate industrial reasons. Local officials are trying to get another company to take over the factory to save the jobs.

Mayor bridges worlds

Foure's party, Nouveau Centre, has committed to voting for Les Republicains candidate Francois Fillon, who is currently facing corruption charges. For the final round, Foure says she will consider Macron, but he's not her first choice.

"Macron rarely comes back. He launched his campaign here but it was just publicity to show he's not just a banker from Paris, but from the French heartland," she said.

Foure says workers' disappointment and feelings of abandonment push them to Le Pen. Her job, she says, is to continue connecting Amiens inhabitants to jobs, to each other and the rest of the world.

In her 30 years in politics, Foure has never seen anything like this year's elections. People don't know how to vote. 

"There are two reactions," she said. "Take refuge in the National Front, or don't vote at all." 

"I feel like I'm at a crossroads of civilization and political life. There are those who fear globalization, who are fragile and fear the future, and those who say let's just deal with it and move on," Foure said. "Marine Le Pen plays on that, too."

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