Leadership crisis could lead to the break-up of France’s opposition party

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France’s opposition conservatives have sunk deeper into a leadership crisis that could split the party, as moderates demanded a new vote to replace the disputed election of a hardliner and formed a breakaway wing.

Jean-François Cope, affirmed in revised ballot results on Monday as a close winner of the UMP’s 18 November leadership vote, said it was time to move on from a week-old dispute that has left former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s party in chaos.

But Mr Cope’s rival, François Fillon, yesterday said he and his supporters were forming a new centre-right group within the UMP while he presses the party to hold a fresh vote from scratch.

“I am fighting over principles. Nobody today is in fact leader of the UMP,” Mr Fillon said, as he called for a new vote within three months to be supervised by an independent body. “We are neither beaten nor mute.”

He added that he still hoped to be able to hold together a party formed a decade ago to knit centrist and harder-right strands of conservatism.

Eight days of sparring and accusations of fraud are fast undermining the credibility of a party that ruled for a decade until losing power in May.

The debacle – described by conservative daily paper Le Figaro this week as “a pitiful spectacle” – could carry on unresolved for days, providing a welcome distraction for Socialist president François Hollande as he grapples with a sickly economy and dismal approval ratings.