French right in chaos over contested leadership vote

Mon Nov 19, 2012 5:18am EST
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By Sophie Louet

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.   Continued...

French politician Jean-Francois Cope (C) claims victory in a close election vote to head the UMP political party during a news conference at their headquarters in Paris November 18, 2012. France's UMP party members voted on Sunday to select its leader between current Secretary-General Cope and former Prime Minister Francois Fillon. Both Cope and Fillon have claimed victory as leader of the UMP political party. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier