French right opposition heads for split over leadership row

27th November 2012, Comments 0 comments

France's right-wing opposition UMP Tuesday appeared headed for a split after a poisonous leadership battle as the twice declared winner Jean-Francois Cope rejected demands for a fresh vote.

The UMP, the political heir to the party founded by Charles de Gaulle after World War II, faces one of the worst crises in its history after accusations of rigging marred a November 18 election pitting former premier Francois Fillon against hardline rival Cope.

Cope, an ally of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, on Tuesday brushed aside Sarkozy's suggestion -- reported by several informed sources -- for a fresh ballot, as his defeated rival also dug in his heels.

"The time is not right in the heat of the moment, in the bitterness say we must vote again right away," Cope said on France Info radio.

But Fillon struck back Tuesday after a meeting with his supporters, who said they were launching a new parliamentary faction which would be dissolved as soon as a new vote was held.

At a peacemaking lunch Monday with Fillon, Sarkozy said holding a new vote would "avoid an escalation of the conflict", a party source told AFP -- an account confirmed by both Fillon and Cope loyalists in the party.

Cope also said he had spoken to his mentor at length and denied that Sarkozy wanted a revote.

"This is what is being attributed to him. I have not personally heard him say that," he said.

Cope said under party statutes a new election would take at least six months to allow time for campaigning.

"The time has now come to prepare for the future, to see how the statutes can be modified" to make the party play its rightful role as an opposition group, he said.

"The time has come to turn the page. An election was held and its result was confirmed twice."

Saying one cannot bring down a fever by breaking the thermometer, he took a swipe at Fillon saying: "Maybe the reason why one lost was that the campaign did not fulfil the expectations of the people."

The ridicule foisted on the party over the leadership debacle has done serious damage to the UMP's image, benefitting Socialist President Francois Hollande as he struggles with a flat economy and dropping popularity.

The breakaway from the party's parliamentary faction could deprive it of crucial public funding.

Such a move would strip the UMP of the 42,000 euros ($54,000) in annual funding it receives for each of its members in the lower-house National Assembly and upper-house Senate.

Lawmakers have until Friday to declare their party affiliation for next year's funds.

France's conservative Le Figaro daily said the right was committing "live suicide."

Fillon, 58, and Cope, 48, have traded accusations of fraud and ballot-rigging.

A party appeals commission on Monday confirmed Cope's win, raising his margin of victory from 98 votes to nearly 1,000 following an examination of complaints over alleged irregularities.

Fillon's camp has accused the commission of bias and said he will pursue legal action including a civil suit to have the results overturned.

The UMP has 183 members in France's 577-seat National Assembly, the second-largest group after the Socialists.

Both Fillon and Cope are fiscal conservatives advocating free-market policies and economic reforms, but Cope has carved out a niche on the right flank of the UMP with his tough-talking approach to immigration and Islam.

© 2012 AFP

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