French conservatives split in vote for new leader

Nov 19, 2012, 4:47 AM EST
Former French prime minister Francois Fillon and candidate to head the conservative UMP party, cast his vote at a polling station in Paris, Sunday Nov. 18, 2012.
(AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)

PARIS (AP) — Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative party was in disarray on Monday after a vote to elect its next leader produced a razor-thin result and both candidates claimed victory.

An electoral commission of the Union for a Popular Movement party was sifting through the votes after allies of both candidates — former Prime Minister Francois Fillon and former Budget Minister Jean-Francois Cope — both claimed pockets of vote-rigging in Sunday's balloting.

The winner will lead opposition to President Francois Hollande's Socialists, who lead both houses of parliament and nearly all of France's regions. In the spring, after a decade in power, Sarkozy's conservative party — known by the French acronym UMP — lost both the presidency and control of the National Assembly to the Socialists.

The UMP party commission was expected to announce the final outcome later Monday, but the wait was clearly excruciating for a long-united Gaullist party already licking its wounds from the electoral defeats in the spring.

Laurent Wauquiez, a former European affairs minister, said the dispute gave the party a "very bad image" and former Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire called the situation "surreal." In a blog entry entitled "Stop!" former Prime Minister Alain Juppe wrote: "We have to get out of this lamentable situation to avoid the explosion of our party."

Sarkozy, who lost to Hollande in May, remains a quiet behind-the-scenes presence. Fillon is seen mostly as an even-tempered moderate, while UMP secretary-general Cope has reached out to the far-right: He led a legislative effort that banned face-covering Muslim veils in France.

Many see the Cope-Fillon showdown as jockeying for position to lead the party up to the next presidential and legislative elections in France in 2017. France doesn't have any elections again until 2014 — when voters will elect mayors, regional officials and European Parliament lawmakers.

Party leadership is seen as a possible springboard to the presidency, allowing a politician to glad-hand among the rank-and-file and build up the party machine in his or her image. Sarkozy and Hollande are among many French postwar party leaders who eventually won the presidency.