The battle to succeed former president Nicolas Sarkozy at the helm of France’s main opposition party, the UMP, remained undecided after both candidates claimed victory amid allegations of ballot rigging.
After a long night of waiting in both camps, the two claimed victory early on Monday, with Francois Fillon announcing a 224 votes’ lead on his opponent, while Jean-Francois Cope claimed a 1000 votes’ lead.
“The French right today is split in two with a very, very slight margin, I don’t even know who wins tonight at this point“
– Pierre Lellouche,
The confusion followed several hours during which both camps claimed there had been irregularities in the voting process.
Moderate ex-prime minister Fillon, who regularly tops political popularity polls, was tipped to narrowly beat Cope, a disciple of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy and his hard stance on issues including immigration.
“The toll is clear, I have been elected by the majority of the UMP militants,” Cope said late on Sunday night.
If there is no winner, there is a clear loser according to Pierre Lellouche, a former minister under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency.
“The French right today is split in two with a very, very slight margin, I don’t even know who wins tonight at this point.
“But clearly a split in the party, plus accusations of fraud on both sides gives a very bad image of the French opposition at a time where we should be united and fight against a government that is failing, I mean it is ridiculous,” Lellouche told the Reuters news agency.
Francois Fillon called for the party’s election commission to pronounce itself on final results which would certainly involve recounting overnight in order to designate the winner.
“I will not give up on anything because what matters today is for the right and centre to embody our country’s
recovery,” he told journalists.
Return of Sarkozy
Yet with two thirds of UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) members wanting Sarkozy to return for the 2017
election, a new leader would not completely bury an existential crisis in the opposition party.
French President Francois Hollande has a clear majority in parliament and controls most French regions, but a slump in his ratings is giving the right an audience.
Fillon, an urbane 58-year-old, appeals more to centre-ground voters disillusioned with Hollande’s left-wing policies, such as tax hikes on high-earners.
Cope, a more polarising figure, is playing to the nearly one in five people who voted for the far-right National Front in the first election round in May, betting that rampant unemployment will keep tensions high over immigration.
The gulf between them reflects a split in a party founded by former President Jacques Chirac in 2002 to group
several centre-right parties and carry on the legacy of post-war leader Charles de Gaulle, who sought to transcend
the left-right rift.