Nicolas Sarkozy ally wins French right leadership battle
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The contest would normally decide the UMP's candidate for the 2017 presidential election, but surveys indicate that two-thirds of party members think Sarkozy has a better chance of wresting power back from the ruling Socialists.
The election row has further fuelled speculation of a comeback by Sarkozy, who has told aides he will feel obliged to return if the Socialists fail to revive the sickly economy.
Alain Juppe, a former foreign minister and a key figure in founding the UMP, condemned what he called a contest of egos that he said threatened the party's very existence.
The UMP, founded by former conservative president Jacques Chirac in 2002 to merge various centre-right parties including his own Rally for the Republic (RPR), is reeling from the loss of the presidency, parliament and most French regions.
The vote to pick a successor to Sarkozy was meant to determine whether the UMP would cleave to the centre ground under Fillon, in keeping with the party's decades-old roots, or move right under the combative Cop in a quest to regain power.
Instead, the disarray could bolster far-right and centrist parties, analysts said.
Cope, 48, said late on Sunday that he had won the race, only to have Fillon announce that was ahead in the vote counts and his camp complain of massive fraud at voting stations in areas loyal to Cope.
The Conservative daily Le Figaro talked on its front page of an open crisis at the UMP, and the political weekly L'Express said even Sarkozy could struggle to unite and lead a party torn by divisions and infighting.
Fillon, an urbane former lawyer, has targeted those centre-ground voters who abandoned Sarkozy to support Hollande in the May election, put off by Sarkozy's aggressive manner and hardline stance on issues such as immigration.
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