Warring French right reaffirms Cope as leader

Mon Nov 26, 2012 2:38pm EST
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By Chine Labbé and Catherine Bremer

PARIS (Reuters) - France's conservative opposition party slid further into crisis on Monday as moderate and harder-right factions squabbled over a disputed November 18 vote to find a successor to former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

The UMP party, which lost power in the May presidential election and has been in chaos since last week's vote, affirmed Jean-Francois Cope as its new leader, saying an adjusted ballot count carried out after claims of fraud confirmed his win.

But Francois Fillon, who has been locked in a fierce dispute with Cope for the past week, immediately dismissed the new count as "illegal", saying the internal UMP appeals committee that produced it was biased in favor of his rival.

The public infighting and claims of ballot-stuffing have horrified France and revealed a deep rift between centrist and harder-right wings in a party formed a decade ago with the explicit mission of gluing those factions together.

"Once again, Jean-Francois Cope has proclaimed himself leader by force," Fillon, who was highly popular as Sarkozy's prime minister and viewed as an urbane and reserved figure next to the volatile president, said in a statement.

Monday's result showed that Cope, a disciple of Sarkozy with hardline views on immigration and religion, won the leadership contest by 952 votes out of around 173,000 votes cast.

Cope was initially declared the winner a week ago by just 98 votes. Fillon contested that result, saying he would have won by 26 votes had some 1,000 votes from overseas territories not been omitted by mistake.

Fillon began mounting a legal challenge to Cope's victory on Monday and Alain Juppe, a co-founder of the UMP and former prime minister, begged Sarkozy to step in and defuse the crisis after his own attempts at mediation failed.   Continued...

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy (2nd L) enters his car as he leaves his house in Paris November 26, 2012. A co-founder of France's opposition conservative party begged Sarkozy on Monday to step in and save it from implosion, after he failed to settle a vicious row over who won last weekend's leadership contest. Sarkozy - widely seen as mulling a comeback for the 2017 presidential election despite vowing to quit politics when he lost power in May - was to meet Francois Fillon, his former prime minister, for lunch on Monday to discuss the crisis. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier