French President Nicolas Sarkozy ruled out any deal with the far-right National Front of Marine Le Pen, backed by nearly a fifth of voters in a presidential election first round, to give them cabinet jobs or help them win seats in parliament.
An opinion poll showed two-thirds of Sarkozy supporters want him to break with past policy and strike an alliance with the Front after Le Pen's 17.9 percent score on Sunday made her 6.4 million backers key to a May 6 presidential runoff.
Both Sarkozy and Socialist Francois Hollande, who beat the conservative by 28.6 percent to 27.2 percent on the first round and leads opinion polls for the runoff, are striving to respond to the protest vote without angering traditional supporters.
Sarkozy said on Wednesday that listening to Le Pen's backers did not mean he could envisage far-right ministers in a conservative-led government.
There will be no pact with the National Front, he told France Info radio, saying there were too many issues on which the parties disagreed to imagine giving the party cabinet posts.
There will be no National Front ministers, but I refuse to demonise men and women who in voting for Marine Le Pen cast a crisis vote, a vote of anger, a vote of suffering and a vote of despair. I have to listen to their message and take them into account, and not think it's time to hold my nose.
France holds a parliamentary election in June and Le Pen, whose party has no seats in the outgoing legislature, hopes to capitalise on the surge in her vote in the presidential contest.
Hollande told France 2 television he would not make concessions to the far right but he did want to show he had understood voters' fear and anger about factory closures.
The Socialist, who has a 10-point lead over Sarkozy in voting intentions for the runoff, said that if elected, he would try to prevent a series of industrial layoffs which he said were being deliberately held back until after the election.
I hear the anger. I see the workers who are wondering about the future of their jobs, who are fighting against outsourcing, who do not accept the redundancy plans, who express their anger by voting for Marine Le Pen, Hollande said.
Regarding redundancy plans, I want us to have measures that can protect and reinforce our industry, he said, without going into detail. I will not allow this string of closures, that has been put off until after the election, to take place.
Sarkozy, the first sitting president to lose the first round of a re-election vote, is being punished for economic malaise, rampant unemployment and his brash presidential style, which many voters dislike.
Making his own gesture to disgruntled factory workers on Wednesday, Sarkozy said it was important to realise that the impact of financial crisis was much harsher for people working in industry than those in secure civil servant positions.
Sarkozy and Hollande battled for the blue-collar worker vote in their election campaign, but opinion polls show many in that group flocked instead to either the far right or hard left.
Hollande is citing Le Pen's vote to fuel his push to add pro-growth clauses to Europe's budget discipline pact. He said he would at once start talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the need for a greater growth focus.
I will renegotiate the treaty, Mrs Merkel knows that, he told TF1 television late on Tuesday. And if the French give me their backing, my first trip will be to confirm to her that the French have voted for a different kind of Europe.
The risk of a revolt against Berlin's emphasis on deficit-cutting over promoting economic growth was highlighted by the collapse of the Dutch government in a row over budget cuts.
There is a cry of distress against a Europe that is not going in the right direction. It needs to be able to drive us towards the future rather than being all about austerity, Hollande said on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Catherine Bremer and Brian Love; Editing by Paul Taylor)