The race to lead France’s conservative opposition descended into chaos yesterday, with both contenders alleging fraud in a vote that highlighted a deep split between hardliners and moderates since the party lost power in May.
The bickering wrecked a contest designed to give the right a fresh start after losing its 17-year hold on the presidency in May, and prompted commentators to warn the Union for a Popular Movement could collapse.
Jean-François Copé, a hardline disciple of Nicolas Sarkozy, declared in the early hours of Monday that he was 1,000 votes ahead of Francois Fillon, but the former president’s long-serving prime minister said he had a lead of 224 votes.
The influential Le Monde daily, running a front-page photo of a bare podium at UMP headquarters, said it was hard to imagine a worse outcome for the party.
“It’s a catastrophe. The Socialists must be pleased with this,” lamented a member of Mr Fillon’s team. “Nicolas Sarkozy must be happy, too. He must be saying to himself that things are not going well without him.”
The infighting in the main opposition party also takes some of the pressure off Socialist president François Hollande, whose approval ratings have slumped to as low as 36 per cent as he struggles with rampant unemployment and stalled growth.
The contest would normally decide the UMP’s candidate for the 2017 presidential election, but surveys show that two-thirds of party members see Mr Sarkozy as better placed to wrest power back from the ruling Socialists.
The election row has further fuelled speculation of a comeback by Sarkozy, who has told aides he would feel obliged to return if the Socialists fail to revive the 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.
While Mr Fillon, a mild-mannered 58-year-old, urged UMP supporters to be patient and await the final vote count, Mr Copé told BFM television that centres where ballots had been rigged should be removed from the count.
Mr Fillon, an urbane former lawyer, has targeted those centre-ground voters who abandoned Mr Sarkozy to support Mr Hollande in the May election, put off by Mr Sarkozy’s aggressive manner and hardline stance on issues such as immigration.
Mr Copé, 48 and a more polarising figure, has stirred up criticism 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.