Sarkozy's party fractures amid leadership dispute

Former Prime minister Francois Fillon leaves after a press conference on November 27, 2012 in Paris, after a meeting with several MPs supporting him about the leadership dispute that has thrown the UMP main right-wing opposition into turmoil. AFP PHOTO / MEHDI FEDOUACH

PARIS: France's main opposition party could split in two after one of the men vying to lead it pledged to break away unless a new vote is held for the conservative party's leadership.

The dispute over control of former President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative Union for a Popular Movement party has upended French politics. The UMP is the main challenger to President Francois Hollande's Socialists, who control France's government, parliament and most regions.

Conservative hard-liner Jean-Francois Cope, who has leaned toward the anti-immigrant far right, has been declared the winner of elections for UMP leader that were marred by allegations of fraud and other problems.

His rival, former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, a moderate, disputes the results. "The only solution is to vote again," he said after meeting his supporters.

He said he will split away from the UMP in parliament, forming his own group called "UMP Rally." His supporters say scores of UMP members in the lower house of parliament - of the 194 UMP deputies in the 577-seat National Assembly - would abandon Cope's camp for Fillon's group.

If there's a new vote within three months, however, Fillon said he would bring his group back into the UMP fold.

Cope ally and UMP member Sebastian Huyghe accused Fillon of "blackmail."

With two competing factions in parliament, the UMP would struggle to challenge the Socialists' plans, such as legalizing gay marriage. The conservatives would also have a harder time mobilizing to try to scrape back support in local elections in 2014.

Both Cope and Fillon are eyeing the 2017 presidential elections, but have been tarnished by the public insults and infighting over the past week. All this could allow Sarkozy, who left office in May after a single term as president, to try a political comeback.

Cope's supporters have resisted a new vote for UMP leader, arguing that it would cost the party millions of euros to stage.

Cope was initially declared winner of the Nov. 18 vote by a margin of just 98 votes. But it turned out some regions' votes hadn't been counted. A party commission conducted a partial recount, and Cope was again declared winner Monday night, by a margin of 952 votes.

Fillon called the recount "illegal" and his lawyer raised the possibility of contesting it in court.

Fillon, who pushed for budget cuts and loosening labor laws when he was Sarkozy's prime minister and opposes Hollande's tax hikes, stressed the importance of fixing France's economy.

He insisted the UMP "incarnates the union of the right and the center," a reference to Cope's more hard-right views on immigration and Islam.

Fillon warned that the UMP is at risk of being taking apart by parties of the center and extreme right.

Some disgusted UMP members have reportedly joined a new centrist party, and the far-right National Front is hoping to win over new followers because of the conservatives' divisions.





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