PARIS Far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon warned France's Socialist presidential frontrunner Francois Hollande on Tuesday against chasing after far-right candidate Marine Le Pen's voters, saying he risked electoral "disaster".
Melenchon, a former Trotskyist who came fourth in Sunday's presidential first round with 11 percent, told Reuters in an interview that Hollande needed the votes of his Left Front to beat incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in a May 6 second round.
"Hollande must not run a campaign where others draw him onto their terrain. It's a trap," said the former teacher.
"They want to talk about the National Front. Then there'll be no more social issues, there is only the issue of Arabs, immigrants, Muslims," Melenchon said.
Both Sarkozy and Hollande have appeared to make overtures to Le Pen's 6.4 million voters, nearly one-fifth of the electorate, who hold the key to the decisive runoff.
But Melenchon said that to convince wavering far-left voters, Hollande would need to focus on workers' salaries and fighting a wave of austerity sweeping Europe.
"During the campaign, Hollande snubbed us. Now they need us because they cannot beat Mr Sarkozy without us," he said. "In this country, the chance of convincing people on the right to vote for the left is not very high."
Melenchon, who quit the Socialists in 2008 to found his own Left Party because he found their approach too soft, said his Communist-backed front did not want a formal pact with Hollande, but simply sought to end five years of conservative rule.
Referring to Hollande's comment that he needed to convince National Front voters, Melenchon said: "If he does that, it's a disaster."
Melenchon acknowledged that most of his supporters, angry about unemployment and disparities between rich and poor, would rally behind Hollande in the second round. But he said at least 15 percent of them were hesitating and needed convincing.
Hollande, who has pledged to hike taxes on big corporations and tax income over 1 million euros ($1.3 million) a year at 75 percent, has said his policies will not be hijacked by anyone and pledged to stick to France's EU commitment to balance its budget.
Latest polls show the Socialist challenger winning the second round by some 55 percent to 45.
Melenchon said Hollande should refuse to follow those aides urging him to engage in debate about immigration and security.
"Francois Hollande must say that is not the issue, the issue is salaries, social issues, the question of Europe, how are we going to confront the views of the conservative German government," Melenchon said.
The fiery orator, who drew tens of thousands to open-air rallies, said Hollande should make plain that France would no longer support IMF-inspired austerity which was "bleeding to death" countries such as Greece.
"Mr (Wolfgang) Schaeuble, the German finance minister, must pipe down a little, because we are going to knock out Sarkozy on May 6 and then we'll see if the conservative German government can impose its views on its own. I would be surprised.
"Greece has bled for nothing. Do we have to suffer nine austerity plans before we say that is enough? ... That is what Francois Hollande should be talking about. Not immigrants."
Melenchon advocates confiscating all earnings above 360,000 euros ($475,000) a year, nationalizing big companies, capping maximum salaries, and raise the minimum wage by 20 percent.
If the left held its nerve, Sarkozy's UMP party would break up after a lost presidential election and waging an internecine battle with the National Front over parliamentary elections in June, he said.
"This reality is going to make the right explode. You'll see it before your very eyes. Puff, the right will go up in smoke, in little bits."
(Additional reporting by Yves Clarisse and Lionel Laurent; Editing by Paul Taylor and Giles Elgood)