By Nicholas Vinocur
PARIS (Reuters) - French conservatives whose main party has been locked in a leadership struggle for weeks after losing the last national election to the Socialists agreed on Monday to hold a new vote in September.
The deal raised the prospect of a return to business as usual for the UMP, distracted from its role as the leading opposition party since Jean-Francois Cope and former prime minister Francois Fillon both claimed to have won a leadership vote six weeks ago to replace ousted former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
Cope, a lawyer, former budget minister and apparent winner of the contested November 18 vote, said a compromise was being fine tuned to schedule a new election in September, bringing forward a vote by six months from the date he originally had proposed.
Supporters of Fillon, his main opponent, hailed the agreement but called for guarantees to avoid any repeat of voting irregularities which tarnished the first election.
"I hope we'll reach a deal today with Francois Fillon on the main points," Cope said on i<Tele news television.
The deal fended off the prospect of a breakup following weeks of vicious public exchanges, an internal split formalized by the formation of a new centre-right in parliament run by Fillon, and a failed mediation effort by Sarkozy.
Fillon, a moderate who became one of France's best-liked politicians after five years under Sarkozy, plummeted to an approval rating of 33 percent, according to a December 9 survey by pollster Opinionway.
Cope, with support of just 17 percent in the poll, acknowledged the fallout from what he called a "tragi-comedy".
"Obviously we've suffered in the polls, but what causes me the most regret is the image of the party that we have transmitted to our supporters," he said.
UMP LIVES TO FIGHT ON
The party nevertheless has made advances at the ballot box, winning three by-elections on Sunday - a result which suggested internal problems weighed less for voters than Socialist President Francois Hollande's job performance.
It also showed that voters still identified the UMP as a single party and not two camps split along ideological lines. Many analysts had predicted a break, with Cope running a tough right flank and Fillon in charge of moderate Gaullists.
"It was never about ideology," said a member of European Parliament in Cope's camp who asked not to be identified to speak freely on a sensitive topic. "It was always a personal dispute, a clash between two men who truly detest each other and would do anything to prevent the other from succeeding."
As poll scores dwindled, Cope and Fillon inched toward a deal by holding a series of closed-door meetings. They were to meet again on Monday to fine tune their agreement, Cope said.
But the climate at the UMP remained one of mutual suspicion and the crisis has diminished the stature of Cope and Fillon as potential presidential candidates in 2017.
(Additional reporting by Chine Labbe; Editing by Michael Roddy)