Amid bitter leadership row, French conservatives tap Copé

Jean-François Copé today was named the winner of the conservative UMP party's recount. But rival François Fillon begs to differ.

Christophe Ena/AP/File
In this file photo, former French Prime Minister François Fillon, left, and French conservative party UMP Secretary General Jean-François Copé pose for photographers before a televised debate last month. The two men have been locked in a contentious fight over leadership of the UMP.

An internal committee investigating the contentious Nov. 18 election for leadership of France's right-wing opposition UMP party has declared a winner, but the struggle between two prominent French conservatives over the UMP's top spot looks set to continue, likely in court.

The party's internal investigation began last week after initial results showed Jean-François Copé with only a 98-vote victory over François Fillon. Today, the committee declared Mr. Copé the UMP's new leader. But while Copé called for the party to choose "forgiveness instead of division," Mr. Fillon rejected the recount as "illegal."

Fillon was prime minister during former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s tenure and is considered more moderate than Copé, the current party leader who held a position equivalent to a US House majority leader until June, when the Socialist party and its allies won France's parliamentary elections.

What started as a neck-and-neck election eight days ago between Copé and Fillon has quickly escalated into a public political war to succeed President Sarkozy as right-wing leader, with both men fiercely criticizing each other and accusing one another of cheating.

Both Fillon and Copé claimed victory in the election on Nov. 18. But the next day, a UMP commission tasked with overseeing the election declared Copé the winner by a mere 98 votes, and the tension between the two sides has grown steadily since.

On Wednesday, Fillon’s camp said that votes from three overseas territories hadn’t been counted and claimed that adding them to the vote tally would mean victory for Fillon. In today's announcement, the investigating committee put Copé ahead by 952 votes after the recount.

An inheritance from Sarkozy?

Stéphane Rozès, a political analyst and the president of Cap, a communications consulting company, says the turmoil within the UMP stems in part from the void left by Mr. Sarkozy after he lost this year’s presidential election to François Hollande.

“Nicolas Sarkozy didn’t leave anything that could allow the right wing to structure itself around a body of doctrine, because everything was organized around his person,” Mr. Rozès says. “The only thing that remained is a radicalization of the UMP that took [the party] further away from right-wing sympathizers.”

An editorial in the weekend edition of France’s most prestigious newspaper Le Monde argued that Sarkozy was to blame for the current crisis because he took the party too far to the right during the last presidential campaign. At the same time, Le Monde wrote, the UMP has not been able to move on since Sarkozy left power, nor has it engaged in any kind of soul-searching.

“Nicolas Sarkozy is not the big winner of this fratricidal war,” the editorial read. “He is the cause of it.”

Trading barbs

Regardless of the cause, the debate over the election has led to a toxic atmosphere within the party, with Fillon and Copé trading barbs publicly.

"The behavior of François Fillon, it’s the story of an inelegant loser who now comes to give lessons of morality without applying them to himself,” Copé told Europe 1 radio on Thursday.

The following day, Fillon had a few words for Copé. “I measure all the damages from this crisis, but at the same I want to say that a political party is not a mafia,” Fillon told RTL radio. “A political party, it’s not a place where you can bury cases, refuse to tell the truth.”

On Sunday morning, Fillon’s team refused to recognize the UMP commission examining allegations of fraud as legitimate. In the evening, mediation between Copé and Fillon by former French Prime Minister Alain Juppé, who is considered the party’s moral gatekeeper, proved unsuccessful. The mediation attempt appeared to be a last resort and its failure was met by angry reactions on both sides.

Fillon took to Twitter after the meeting to blame Copé for the failed talks and announced he would go to court. He tweeted, “I will go to court to restore the truth of the results and give the party base its voice back.”

Agence France-Presse, relying on anonymous sources, reported that Sarkozy advised Fillon not to go to court when the two met for lunch on Monday. Sarkozy also said it would be better that a new election be held, according to Agence France-Presse.

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