PARIS: France’s right-wing UMP opposition was thrown into fresh turmoil Wednesday after former Prime Minister Francois Fillon announced he was contesting the result of a bitterly disputed leadership race.
The move will further dent the image of ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP – still reeling from its loss of the presidency and parliament this year – and raises the specter of a split on the right that would benefit the ruling Socialists.
The venomous leadership race and accusations of voter fraud have hurt the party’s image at a time it could be taking advantage of President Francois Hollande’s falling popularity over his handling of the economy.
Fillon, who lost by just 98 votes to Sarkozy’s close ally Jean-Francois Copé in Sunday’s vote, said the count did not include ballots cast in some of France’s overseas territories which would have handed him victory.
Fillon’s supporters said if the votes of New Caledonia, Mayotte, and Wallis and Futuna were counted, he would have won a total of 88,004 votes against 87,978 for Copé.
Fillon said he conceded the race to Copé Monday in the spirit of party unity, but was now contesting the results and asking party heavyweight Alain Juppé, Sarkozy’s ex-foreign minister, to take over as interim head of the UMP.
“Everybody can see that our party is at an impasse. Its credibility and unity are under threat. I do not want our movement to tear itself apart under the weight of suspicions that are now hanging over this vote,” Fillon said in a statement.
He said he was “saddened” by the party’s crisis, but insisted he was “simply demanding the truth.”
Copé, a fiery and famously ambitious right-winger known for flirting with the far-right, rejected any talk of overturning the results and called for the party to unite under his banner.
“There were results, we must now rally and work together,” Copé told journalists, adding that if the results are contested his camp was ready to raise concerns about alleged voter fraud in Fillon’s favor.
“I am calling once again for Francois Fillon and all of those around him to take the hand I have extended to them. The time has come to build together,” Copé said.
The head of the UMP’s internal election commission, Patrice Gelard, said it could not overturn its decision but that both candidates could address their concerns to an appeals commission.
The UMP’s struggle to find a replacement for Sarkozy has heartened its opponents on the left, where a senior Socialist called it a “tragicomedy”, and on the far-right, where National Front leader Marine Le Pen mocked the vote as “pathetic.”
Both Fillon, a 58-year-old who was Sarkozy’s prime minister for five years, and Copé, 48, are fiscal conservatives advocating free-market policies and economic reforms.
But Copé has carved out a niche on the right flank of the UMP with his approach to immigration and Islam.
Whoever finally does become UMP leader may not necessarily be the party’s candidate for the French presidency in 2017 as Sarkozy has not ruled out a return to politics.