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Sarkozy’s party leaders fighting for top post

PARIS: A populist right-winger famed for his aggressive rhetoric and flair for the dramatic, Jean-Francois Cope has long fostered ambitions of winning the French presidency.
Locked in a battle to succeed Nicolas Sarkozy at the helm of France’s right-wing opposition UMP party, Cope, 48, declared victory late Sunday only a few minutes before his rival, ex-prime minister Francois Fillon, did the same.
Counting in the party vote resumed yesterday following allegations of vote-rigging and irregularities.
So ambitious is Cope that during his first marriage in 1991 he declared to the assembled guests: “You’re lucky, you’re at the wedding of the future president.”
The marriage didn’t last — Cope divorced in 2007 — but his ambitions have never faltered.
The race to lead France’s conservative opposition descended into chaos, with both contenders alleging fraud in a vote that highlighted a deep split between hardliners and moderates since the party lost power in May.
The bickering wrecked a contest designed to give the right a fresh start after losing its 17-year hold on the presidency in May, and prompted political commentators to warn the Union for a Popular Movement could collapse. Jean-Francois Copé, a hardline disciple of Nicolas Sarkozy, declared in the early hours of Monday that he was 1,000 votes ahead of Francois Fillon, but the former president’s long-serving prime minister said he had a lead of 224 votes.
The influential Le Monde daily, running a front-page photo of a bare podium at UMP headquarters, said it was hard to imagine a worse outcome for the party.
“It’s a catastrophe. The Socialists must be pleased with this,” lamented a member of Fillon’s team privately. “Nicolas Sarkozy must be happy too. He must be saying to himself that things are not going well without him.”
The infighting in the main opposition party also takes some of the pressure off Socialist President Francois Hollande, whose approval ratings have slumped to as low as 36 percent as he struggles with rampant unemployment and stalled growth.
The contest would normally decide the UMP’s candidate for the 2017 presidential election but surveys show that two-thirds of party members see Sarkozy better placed to wrest power back from the ruling Socialists.
The election row has further fuelled speculation of a comeback by Sarkozy, who has told aides he would feel obliged to return if the Socialists fail to revive the sickly economy.
“Even without knowing who the winner is, we can state that the true victor of this vote is called Nicolas Sarkozy,” the business daily Les Echos wrote in an editorial.
Alain Juppé, a former foreign minister and a key figure in founding the UMP, condemned what he called “a contest of egos” which he said threatened the party’s very existence.