PARIS (Reuters) - The race to lead France's conservative opposition was in chaos on Monday after both contenders claimed to be winning a vote that has highlighted a deep split between hardliners and moderates since the party lost power in May.
Jean-Francois Cope, a hardline disciple of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, said he was 1,000 votes in front of Sarkozy's former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who declared 20 minutes later that he was in fact winning.
Ballot-counting resumed at 10 a.m. (0900 GMT) after a pause caused by allegations of fraud but the chaos has already undermined a contest that was meant to give the right a fresh start after it lost its 17-year hold on the presidency.
"It's a catastrophe. The Socialists must be pleased with this," lamented a member of Fillon's team privately. "Nicolas Sarkozy must be happy too. He must be saying to himself that things are not going well without him."
"This is known as ballot-stuffing. It's pretty pathetic," Cope told BFM television.
While the contest would normally decide the UMP's (Union for a Popular Movement) candidate for the presidential election in 2017, surveys show that two-thirds of party members see Sarkozy better placed to wrest power back from the ruling Socialists.
Sarkozy has told aides he would feel obliged to stage a comeback if Socialist President Francois Hollande fails to revive France's sickly economy.
"Even without knowing who the winner is, we can state that the true victor of this vote is called Nicolas Sarkozy," the business daily Les Echos wrote in an editorial.
Cope told BFM television that more votes had been counted than there were voter signatures, proving there had been fraud.
Fillon, who said he had a lead of more than 200 votes, also complained of irregularities in the voting process.
"We don't have the right to proclaim results before those whose responsibility it is have even done so," Fillon said.
The UMP, founded by former conservative president Jacques Chirac in 2002 to group together various center-right parties, is reeling from the loss of the presidency, parliament and most French regions.
Conservative daily Le Figaro talked on its front page of an open crisis at the UMP, whose leadership contest was meant to determine whether it cleaves to the center under Fillon or moves right under the combative Cope in a quest to regain power.
Christophe Barbier, editor of the weekly L'Express, noted that even if Sarkozy ended up being the best-placed candidate to run for the party in 2017, he could not return to a party torn by divisions and infighting.
"The entire kingdom of the right is in ruins," Barbier told Reuters. "Whoever the winner is today, his legitimacy will be weak. Sarkozy can only make a comeback if the party is in good health."
Alain Juppé, a conservative former foreign minister and a key figure in founding the UMP, told i<Tele television the party's very existence was under threat and called for an end to what he called a "contest of egos".
Fillon, an urbane 58-year-old, has targeted those center-ground voters who abandoned Sarkozy to support Hollande in the May election, put off by Sarkozy's aggressive manner and hardline stance on issues such as immigration.
Cope, 48, a more polarizing figure, has stirred up criticism in recent weeks by complaining that "anti-white" racism is rife in city suburbs, a stand that appeals to the one in five people who voted far-right in the first round of May's election.
Cope, a lawmaker and town mayor who played a central role in Sarkozy's ban on full-face Islamic veils, has said he will follow in Sarkozy's path but would stand aside in 2017 if Sarkozy wanted to make a comeback.
Additional reporting and writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Jon Boyle