PARIS (Reuters) - Outgoing French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged his divided conservative UMP party on Monday to pull together quickly after his election defeat to fight off a double challenge from the left and far-right in parliamentary polls next month.
Sarkozy, who lost Sunday's presidential election to Socialist Francois Hollande, told senior UMP members to "play hard" and warned against splitting into factions that would weaken the party's standing in parliament.
"For the future, avoid banding into cliques," he said, in remarks relayed by a participant at the closed-door meeting, which was attended by Prime Minister Francois Fillon and UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope among others.
Sarkozy, who is due to hand over power to Hollande on May 15, said he would not campaign for the legislative elections to held in two rounds on June 10 and 17, preferring to take a break with his family.
But he seemed to back away from his promise to withdraw from politics if he lost the presidency, telling his allies that he would "still be around" and that they could "count on him". He had said he would specify his plans in September, the participant said.
Sarkozy's UMP, formed to unify the centre-right in 2002 after National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen made it through to a presidential election runoff - has dominated the lower house of parliament for a decade and lost its Senate majority to the Left only last year.
The party faces a tough challenge, with the Socialists likely to win a lower house majority and Marine Le Pen's National Front seen splitting the right-wing vote in many of 344 districts controlled by the UMP.
Marine Le Pen, who won nearly one in every five votes in last month's first round of the presidential election, has said the National Front could field candidates in more than 350 districts, though experts believe the figure will be closer to 150.
A move by Sarkozy to the right, in the hope of winning over National Front supporters for the runoff, upset more centrist UMP members and the party is divided over whether to form tactical alliances with the far-right party at a local level for the parliamentary elections.
If candidates receive more than 12.5 percent of the vote in the first round, they move on to the second, setting off a three-way contest that is won by a simple majority.
In districts where UMP candidates stand to lose their parliamentary seat, some on the UMP's right wing have raised the prospect of striking deals with National Front candidates to stop the Socialist from knocking both of them out.
Cope said he was opposed this. "There is no question of striking any deals with the National Front. Our political family must remain united," he said at the party's headquarters.
(Reporting By Emmanuel Jarry, additional reporting and writing by Nick Vinocur; editing by David Stamp)