PARIS France's surging hardline leftists finally said out loud on Friday what Socialist Francois Hollande has quietly hoped to hear: that they would encourage their followers to back him in an expected May 6 presidential run-off against Nicolas Sarkozy.
Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who says Hollande's Socialists have gone soft, is expected to be eliminated in the first round of voting in two weeks, but his growing popularity has become one of the main stories of the election campaign.
Until now, he had stopped short of saying whether he would urge his supporters to pull behind Hollande to beat centre-right President Sarkozy in a run-off.
"We will call for a victory over Sarkozy and we will vote for the left-wing candidate who's in front," Melenchon's spokeswoman Clementine Autain said in an interview on RMC radio.
In return, she suggested the Left Front was hoping to secure seats in a future Socialist cabinet.
"We want to ensure the left's success. We would like to see the political conditions emerge for us to take part in government."
Hollande and Sarkozy top the field of 10 candidates for the first round on April 22. Opinion polls suggest Hollande is on course to beat the conservative leader and become France's first left-wing president in 17 years.
Melenchon, who quit the Socialist party in 2008, is backed by the Left Front, a coalition of Communists, his own Left Party and others who believe the Socialists have lost their soul. He has leapfrogged into third place in the polls and often draws bigger crowds than either of the frontrunners.
While Melenchon himself rarely says so explicitly, Autain made it clear that the Left Front wanted to capitalize on the former Trotskyist's success and secure a role in government if the left wins.
Melenchon's promises include a 20 percent rise in the statutory minimum wage and a maximum salary of 360,000 euros a year. Polls show between 70 and 90 percent of his supporters say they would vote for the Socialist if their own candidate is eliminated in the first round as expected.
He has overtaken far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in several polls as the third-ranked candidate, but he remains well short of the scores of 25 to 30 percent that Hollande and Sarkozy are seen as taking in the first round.
France's presidential election, on April 22 and May 6, will be immediately followed by parliamentary elections, which the left last won in 1997, paving the way for five years of government by a Socialist-led coalition that included Communists and environmentalist Greens.
In the latest sparring between the race leaders on Friday, Sarkozy said Hollande's tax-and-spend program was a recipe for disaster in a country that had avoided the worst of Europe's debt crisis under his leadership in the past five years.
"He wants fewer rich people and I want fewer poor people," Sarkozy said in an interview on RTL radio.
Hollande's campaign team took the president to task over a re-election manifesto Sarkozy presented on Thursday in the form of a letter to France's near 45 million voters.
"It's not a letter," said a statement from Hollande's budget specialist Jerome Cahuzac and campaign spokesman Bernard Cazeneuve. "It's the bill, and it's a big one."
(Additional reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey; Editing by Peter Graff)