French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde won potentially critical backing from a group of African states in her bid to become head of the International Monetary Fund, broadening her announced support beyond major European capitals.

As Lagarde stumped for support at the African Development Bank’s annual meeting in Lisbon on Friday, Republic of Congo Finance Minister Matata Mapon endorsed her on behalf of a group of African nations that share an executive board seat at the IMF.

“We are encouraged by your vision,” Mapon said to Lagarde, according to wire service reports from Portugal, adding that he thought she would be “benevolent” toward African countries.

Nominations for the managing director’s job closed Friday, as the IMF seeks to replace French economist and politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who resigned after being charged with sexual assault in New York.

Although usually a confidential process, it has become a very public campaign between Lagarde and Agustin Carstens, Mexico’s central bank governor.

Either would be a historic first for an institution that has been run by western European men since its founding after World War II. Lagarde, a lawyer and former chairman of the Chicago-based Baker McKenzie law firm, has put her stamp on efforts to resolve Europe’s economic crisis. Carstens, who has a doctorate from the University of Chicago and held high-level positions at the IMF, helped steer Mexico through its crisis in the 1980s.

Although Lagarde begins with European support that amounts to about a third of the voting power on the IMF board, other major nations — including the United States — have remained noncommittal, ostensibly setting the stage for the first truly contested battle for the IMF’s top job.

Lagarde has touted her managment expertise and familiarity with Europe’s pressing problems, while Carstens has tried to distinguish himself as a technocrat whose “fresh eyes” might help European nations such as Greece fix their economies.

Other potential candidates on Friday pulled their names from consideration after concluding that it would be impossible to challenge Lagarde. Kazakhstan central banker Grigori Marchenko called Lagarde’s selection a “done deal” in an interview with the Daily Telegraph in London.

South African economist and government minister Trevor Manuel criticized a process in which European leaders lined up behind Lagarde before even knowing who else might be interested in the job, and said “the world is not at a point” at which the IMF head can be chosen solely on merit.

The agency will interview the candidates in coming weeks and expects to make a decision by June 30. That could be complicated by a court ruling in Paris on Friday that delayed until July 8 a decision on whether to launch an investigation into actions Lagarde took as finance minister that ended in a more than $500 million arbitration award to French businessman Bernard Tapie.

Lagarde has said the issue will not effect her IMF candidacy — and by all appearances it has not, as she won quick support from Europe and has spent the past weeks touring Brazil, India, China and other nations to discuss the job.

Carstens has made some of the same stops, but has so far gained announced support only from a cluster of Latin American nations.

Both have made a point to say they think that large, fast-growing nations such as China should have more influence over the IMF’s management.