Conflict erupts within Sarkozy party after vote setback

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling UMP party was torn apart Tuesday as his prime minister and party chief lashed out at each other after an election defeat a year ahead of the presidential vote.

"Turbulence", "Deleterious Climate", "Panic": the French press headlined the problems facing Sarkozy, whose own popularity is at an all-time low, as he struggles to unite his increasingly right-wing party.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon gave UMP party head Jean-Francois Cope a dressing down after Cope accused him of failing to toe the line by distancing himself from a controversial debate on secularism and Islam.

The UMP has struggled to iron out its divisions over what strategy to use to stem the rise of the far-right National Front party, which made inroads in Sunday's local elections.

Cope on Monday evening criticised Fillon on private television channel Canal+ for his "position" and for "not being a team player" concerning the divisive debate on France's secular character.

Fillon had said in February that he would oppose the debate if it was centred on Islam or if it in some way could lead to the stigmatisation of Muslims in France, whose population is estimated at five to six million.

Fillon counter-attacked on Tuesday morning, telling Cope during a meeting at Sarkozy's Elysee Palace that "you can't air your differences with the prime minister like that on television," someone at the encounter told AFP.

Shortly beforehand, Etienne Pinte, an MP close to Fillon, called for Cope's resignation.

Cope however stood by his words, saying that he had "said what he thought," although he later told AFP that the two men had buried the hatchet: "With Fillon, we said things to each other, now it's time to calm down."

The almost unprecedented public conflict testifies to the profound malaise gripping Sarkozy's party, which the president has since last year been steering increasingly to the right, including by talking more and more about immigration.

Sunday's elections, the last before the 2012 presidential vote, showed that the UMP was nevertheless not managing to take votes away from the National Front.

Many within Sarkozy's party also disagree with the UMP's sharp turn to the right and some are asking more or less publicly whether Sarkozy is really the best candidate for them in the presidential.

The latest opinion poll for Ipsos said Sarkozy would be eliminated in the presidential's first round with only 17 percent of the vote while FN leader Marine Le Pen would get 21 percent and Socialist Party member and current International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn would get 34 percent.

Several UMP lawmakers feel that Sarkozy is not answering French people's expectations, notably on dealing with the economic and social situation, and criticise the party for legitimising the FN by allowing its themes to be central to political debate.

© 2011 AFP

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