Sarkozy wades in to battle ravaging French right

26th November 2012, Comments 0 comments

Ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday waded in to a bitter leadership battle that has left France's main right-wing opposition party, the UMP, on the verge of collapse.

The party founded by Charles de Gaulle after World War II was in turmoil after accusations of vote-rigging tarnished a leadership vote.

Still reeling from its loss of the presidency and parliament this year, the UMP is facing the spectre of an unprecedented split on the right, with rival camps showing no sign of backing down in an increasingly angry dispute.

Sarkozy met one of the rivals for the leadership, his former prime minister Francois Fillon, for lunch after flying in early Monday from a conference in Shanghai, a source close to Fillon said.

The meeting at Sarkozy's office in central Paris came after talks to resolve the damaging dispute collapsed late Sunday.

Called in to mediate, party heavyweight Alain Juppe threw in the towel after less than an hour of talks between Fillon and his rival, ambitious party secretary general Jean-Francois Cope.

Juppe said Monday that only Sarkozy would be able to resolve the crisis.

"I used to think the former president should protect himself a bit from this partisan bickering," Juppe told RTL radio. "Clearly he is the only one today to have enough authority to propose a way out."

A source close to Cope said he had also had a "long and cordial telephone conversation" with Sarkozy on Monday morning.

Fillon, 58, and Cope, 48, have traded accusations of fraud and ballot-rigging since last Sunday's party election ended with Cope ahead by only 98 votes.

The party electoral commission has since said that ballots cast in France's overseas territories that were not counted would have reversed the result, while the Cope camp has claimed he would have won by a clear margin but for vote-rigging in the Mediterranean city of Nice.

Fillon said Cope was to blame for the failure of the mediation efforts and announced he would turn to the courts to resolve the dispute -- a move UMP vice-president Luc Chatel described as a "nuclear bomb" inside the party.

On Monday, Fillon stepped up the battle by calling for the "precautionary seizure" of ballots cast in the leadership vote "to protect them from tampering or alteration".

Fillon's camp said party members had blocked a bailiff sent to secure the ballots, but Cope's supporters denied this.

A party appeals commission resumed meeting on Monday to deal with complaints of vote irregularities and sources close to Cope said it was expected to issue a ruling in his favour in the afternoon.

The party has faced ridicule over the debacle at a time it could be taking advantage of Socialist President Francois Hollande's falling popularity over his handling of France's struggling economy.

The UMP's opponents were already writing its obituary, with Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, saying: "The UMP no longer exists. The UMP is dead."

Fillon supporters have raised the prospect of a split in the UMP's parliamentary faction -- a move that could deprive the party of crucial funding and credibility.

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

Polls show the overwhelming majority of French voters and UMP supporters would like to see the party run the election again, but Cope has rejected the idea.

© 2012 AFP

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