PARIS (Reuters) - Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy told supporters to back whoever they wanted in a by-election putting a National Front candidate against a Socialist rival, veering from a mainstream party tradition of recommending anyone but the far right.
The UMP candidate was knocked out in Sunday's first round in the eastern Le Doubs constituency, prompting some UMP officials to urge their conservative supporters to switch allegiance to the Socialist to defeat the anti-immigrant FN.
For decades, France's big two parties have put their differences aside to endorse whichever of their candidates stood the better chance of defeating the FN in run-off votes.
While Sarkozy stressed he was not trying to cozy up to the FN, he and others argue that it alienates the FN voters they are seeking to attract back to the UMP.
"Our position is clear: no complacency or rapprochement with the National Front, but freedom of choice for our voters. We tell them: 'Make your own choice'," Sarkozy told UMP lawmakers ahead of a meeting of the party's national executive on Monday.
Sarkozy, who came out of retirement late last year to mount a new bid for the presidency in 2017, acknowledged a victory for the resurgent FN of Marine Le Pen was possible in Sunday's decisive second round.
The FN came out ahead with 32.6 percent in the first round vote for the parliamentary seat in Le Doubs left vacant by Pierre Moscovici, a Socialist deputy named EU commissioner. The Socialist candidate came in second with 28.9 percent ahead of the conservative UMP candidate.
Alain Juppe, who has declared his aim to stand for the UMP ticket in 2017, on Monday urged conservatives to vote Socialist, pointing to a 1996 comment by the FN candidate Sophie Montel arguing that some races were "clearly not equal" to others.
Some conservatives acknowledge Sarkozy's return to politics has not given much of a boost to the UMP, internally divided and still trying to recover from a party funding scandal.
The FN has just two deputies in the French lower house of parliament but secured control of a record 11 town halls in municipal elections last year, when it also emerged as France's strongest party in European Parliament elections.
The Socialist Party has seen its ratings improve after President Francois Hollande was seen to handle well the aftermath of Islamist attacks last month that left 17 people dead in three days of bloodshed.
But it still needs a further boost ahead of local elections in March and regional elections later in the year, in which they risk heavy losses to the National Front.
Reporting by Emile Picy; writing by Mark John; Editing by Alison Williams