THE BATTLE TO succeed former president Nicolas Sarkozy at the helm of France’s main opposition party, the UMP, was left undecided this morning – after both candidates claimed victory amid allegations of ballot rigging.
Jean-Francois Cope, the party’s populist secretary-general, claimed a clear win – while former prime minister Francois Fillon said he believed he had edged the contest subject to confirmation by the electoral commission which oversaw the poll.
“The French people are watching us. We do not have the right to announce the result before those in charge of the vote,” said Fillon in a swipe at Cope that reflected the acrimonious nature of the campaign – before nonetheless saying he was 224 votes ahead of his rival.
Cope, claiming a victory by 1,000 votes, said: “The activists of the UMP have accorded me a majority of their votes and therefore have elected me as the president of the party.”
More than half of the UMP’s 300,000 members had cast their ballots.
The electoral commission suspended the count till 10:00am local time (9am Irish time) Monday, with the chairman saying records from 50 per cent of the regions were missing.
Fillon, who paid a brief visit to the scene of the count, said drily: “We note that at 3:00 in the morning our political group is unable to give a result.”
Both camps claimed there had been irregularities in voting in several departments and it was unclear how long it would take the electoral commission to check the voting and announce a winner.
The vote comes six months after Sarkozy’s presidential election defeat by Socialist Francois Hollande.
Whoever emerges as the new UMP leader will be taking over a party well-placed to capitalise on Hollande’s slump in popularity and the economic gloom engulfing the country – but he may also face a difficult task in uniting the party after a bitter battle that delighted the UMP’s rivals.
“It is obvious that whoever is elected president of the UMP will have no legitimacy whatsoever given that he will be in charge of a party broken in two,” said Florian Philipott, the deputy leader of the far-right National Front.
The new leader is not even certain to be the mainstream right’s candidate at the next presidential election in 2017; Sarkozy is now busy on the money-spinning international conference circuit but has not ruled out a return to national politics.