PARIS (Reuters) - French former industry minister Arnaud Montebourg told supporters on Monday the country's left needed an "alternative program" for next year's presidential elections, sending the clearest signal yet that he plans to be a contender.
Ousted two years ago over his increasingly vocal criticism of Francois Hollande, Montebourg would be joining an already crowded field jostling to replace the unpopular Socialist president in May 2017.
"Now is the time to wake up, to converse, to gather together and develop an alternative program for the country," Montebourg said at an outdoor gathering he holds each year to mark the Whit Monday holiday.
Hollande, whose approval ratings are the lowest of any French president in modern times, has been struggling to contain an open rebellion within his own party against economic reforms and some of the security measures taken in response to the Islamic State attacks in Paris.
He has not said whether he plans to stand for re-election.
If he bows out, Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Emmanuel Macron, Montebourg's ministerial successor, are seen as likely candidates from the party's reformist wing.
But the Socialists have invited smaller left-wing and ecologist groupings to commit to a joint primary vote that would designate a common candidate, creating a potential opening for Montebourg or a different challenger from the party's left.
As minister, Montebourg drew attention for his "Buy French" campaign - for which he posed in a striped sailor's jersey, cradling a Moulinex blender - and for threatening to nationalize an Arcelor-Mittal steel plant.
While stopping short of any announcement that he plans to run, Montebourg has been making his ambitions more and more clear, telling France 2 television last week that he was ready to "take on responsibilities" as the election approaches.
"But it's not an easy decision to take, and not one to be taken a year before the contest," he said.
(Reporting by Laurence Frost and Myriam Rivet; Editing by Louise Ireland)