French right debacle opens window for Sarkozy

Tue Nov 20, 2012 1:50pm EST
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By Nicholas Vinocur

PARIS (Reuters) - A botched election that hoisted Jean-Francois Cope to the head of France's main conservative party has left it bitterly divided and without a clear presidential candidate for 2017, opening a window for a comeback by ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Cope, who stands on the right of the opposition party, beat moderate ex-prime minister Francois Fillon by a razor-thin margin of 98 votes out of 175,000 after more than 24 hours of bickering over the count and accusations of ballot-stuffing.

The disputed victory unleashed a war of words between factions, raising fears of a possible break-up, or another long-running feud of the kind that has repeated weakened the French right over the past three decades.

While Cope, 48, will now lead the party for three years, hostility in Fillon's camp may deprive him of full support for a 2017 presidential bid and fuel a longing for a figure who stayed aloof from the squabbling: Sarkozy.

"There could scarcely have been a better outcome for Sarkozy," said Jerome Fourquet, an analyst at pollster IFOP. "Cope has a legitimacy problem and Fillon is out of the race, which removes any serious block to his returning in 2017."

However, Sarkozy lost to Socialist President Hollande in May chiefly because of a widespread rejection of his hyperactive, aggressive personality. Those feelings have subsided since he withdrew from active politics, but they could return.

The outcome could also lift Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front ahead of municipal and European elections in 2014 as voters who warmed to Cope's hard line on immigration and religion but were put off by the vote debacle rally to her camp.

The battle for the UMP leadership was so bitter largely because the role offers the winner a media spotlight and control over France's biggest party machine.   Continued...

France's UMP political party head and deputy Jean-Francois Cope speaks during the questions to the government session at the National Assembly in Paris November 20, 2012. REUTERS/Charles Platiau