The battle to succeed former president Nicolas Sarkozy at the helm of France’s main opposition party, the UMP, descended into confusion on Monday with both candidates claiming victory amid mutual allegations of ballot rigging.
Jean-Francois Cope, the party’s populist secretary-general, made an unequivocal claim that he had won, while former prime minister Francois Fillon said he believed he had edged what was an acrimonious contest but would wait “serenely” for a definitive announcement from the electoral commission which oversaw the poll.
“The French people are watching us. We do not have the right to announce the result before those in charge of the vote,” said Fillon in a swipe at Cope, who had minutes earlier declared himself the victor.
Cope said: “The activists of the UMP have accorded me a majority of their votes and therefore have elected me as the president of the party.”
Aides to Cope said he was 1,000 votes ahead of his rival in a vote in which more than half of the UMP’s 300,000 voters had cast their ballots. Fillon said he was 224 votes ahead pending a definitive conclusion to the count.
The vote came six months after Sarkozy’s presidential election defeat to Socialist Francois Hollande, who is now battling a slump in his popularity ratings.
Whoever finally emerges as the new UMP leader will be taking over a party on the up with the Socialist government struggling in the opinion polls and with little sign of the economic gloom engulfing the country abating in the near future.
But he is far from certain to be the mainstream right’s candidate at the next presidential election in 2017.
After a series of holidays in Canada, Morocco and the south of France and intensive English lessons, Sarkozy has reinvented himself in the image of Tony Blair as a fixture on the money-spinning international conference circuit.
He has refused to rule out a return to national politics and polls suggest he remains popular with UMP loyalists, two thirds of whom want to see him have another tilt at the presidency.
The eventual winner of Sunday’s vote will only be given the job of leader for the next three years, leaving Sarkozy plenty of time to maximise his earnings and still make a comeback before 2017.
Fillon, who was prime minister for five years until Sarkozy was ousted by Hollande in May, went into the vote as the marginal favourite, hoping to sell himself as a unity candidate capable of appealing to centrist voters.
Cope is seen as being further to the right, at least on issues related to immigration and multiculturalism, on which he has courted the supporters of the National Front with a string of controversial comments.
Both Fillon, 58, and Cope, 10 years his junior, are seen as advocates of free market policies and economic reform. But they differ on social issues with Cope sharing Sarkozy’s populist approach on the issues of immigration and the integration of Europe’s largest Muslim community.
Last month he published A Manifesto for an Uninhibited Right, in which he argued that the poor immigrant suburbs of French cities had become havens of “anti-white racism”.
Cope, whom critics dub “Sarkozy light” and who has promised to stand aside if the former president seeks re-election in 2017, followed that up with an anecdotal tweet about a boy who had his breakfast pastry (pain au chocolat) snatched from him during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
Fillon accused his rival of opportunism, while seeking to portray himself as an experienced statesman – a stance that prompted Cope to dismiss him as the “Hollande of the right,” in a reference to the president’s perceived lack of charisma and reputation for dithering.