PARIS - A senior Socialist minister said Tuesday that he might back centrist Emmanuel Macron in France's presidential election, which could help Macron as he battles to maintain his campaign's momentum.
The pronouncement by Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll came as opinion polls pictured a multicandidate race in which far-right leader Marine Le Pen was holding on to recent gains, keeping debt and foreign exchange markets on edge.
Two polls showed ex-banker Macron neck and neck with conservative rival Francois Fillon as favorite. A third, from Elabe, had Macron in retreat, and made Fillon of the Republicans, a former prime minister, the favorite for the first time since a scandal over allegedly fake work rocked his campaign four weeks ago.
All recent polls show Le Pen ahead in the April 23 first round, but losing a May 7 runoff to the first-round winner, be it Macron or Fillon.
They also show, however, that her losing margin has shrunk to as little as 6 percentage points from more than 10.
Bad news for left
Le Foll's potential defection was the latest development in a slew of bad news for France's divided political left.
"I support the man who has been chosen [by the Socialists], but the moment comes for political responsibility with regard to what is at play, with regard to Marine Le Pen and with regard also to the program of Francois Fillon," he said on BFM TV.
Asked whether this meant he would back whoever was best placed to prevent a Le Pen-Fillon runoff, he said: "Exactly!" Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has also said he might back Macron, rather than the ruling Socialists' chosen candidate, Benoit Hamon, who is a distant fourth in the polls.
Despite the prospect of heavyweight Socialist backing, the polls show Macron's campaign losing momentum.
Elabe pollsters reckon he has made a series of missteps that explain how they now see Fillon ahead. Macron "has had 10 difficult days," they said.
Anger on the right
Macron angered opponents on the right during a visit to Algeria last week by calling France's colonial past a crime against humanity. He has upset gay-marriage supporters by saying their opponents had been humiliated by the government when it pushed through the gay marriage bill in 2013.
On Tuesday, Macron took his centrist and pro-European campaign to London, home to a large expatriate French community who get to vote in the elections.
The anti-immigration, anti-European Union Le Pen, meanwhile, caused controversy on a trip to Lebanon, where her plans to meet a senior Muslim figure were canceled after her refusal to wear a headscarf.
Le Pen's surge has worried investors concerned that her policies will further destabilize fragile European unity, blow apart the eurozone and hurt the value of French debt.
The cost of insuring French government debt against default has risen to its highest level in more than three years, and sterling rose almost 1 percent against the euro to its highest in two months.
Fillon, meanwhile, was tweaking the health care policies that caused a campaign wobble earlier this year, having apparently put behind him allegations that his wife, Penelope, was paid hundreds of thousands of euros for work she may not have done.
Fillon has said the work was genuine. An official inquiry is under way.
Unity talks flag
Besides the three-way fight, discussions to unite candidates on the left looked to be going nowhere.
Hamon is pushing a hard-left program that divides his party and competes for votes with another leftist, Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Melenchon is in fifth place, but a combined Hamon-Melenchon vote could theoretically put them into first or second and therefore into the runoff, instead of Fillon or Macron, against Le Pen.
Talks between Melenchon, a veteran campaigner, and Hamon, an ex-education minister, were tentative from the start, and both have acknowledged wide policy differences.
Hamon gave the latest indication on Tuesday that they were unlikely to be joining forces.
"There is a desire on Melenchon's part to go on right to the end," Hamon said on Europe 1 radio. "I respect that. ... In any case, I will work on right to the end."
Political analysts are also eyeing an imminent decision from veteran centrist Francois Bayrou on whether to stand. If he stands, that could hurt Macron, but backing from Bayrou could be a further boost.