France's conservative party names Jean-Francois Cope its leader after a recount and splintering squabbles to find a successor to former president Sarkozy.
PARIS — France's conservative opposition party slid further into crisis Monday as moderate and harder-right factions squabbled over a disputed Nov. 18 vote to find a successor to former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
The UMP party, which lost power in the May presidential election and has been in chaos since last week's vote, affirmed Jean-Francois Cope as its new leader, saying an adjusted ballot count carried out after claims of fraud confirmed his win.
But Francois Fillon, who has been locked in a fierce dispute with Cope for the past week, immediately dismissed the new count as "illegal," saying the internal UMP appeals committee that produced it was biased in favor of his rival.
The public infighting and claims of ballot-stuffing have horrified France and revealed a deep rift between centrist and harder-right wings in a party formed a decade ago with the explicit mission of gluing those factions together.
"Once again, Jean-Francois Cope has proclaimed himself leader by force," Fillon, who was highly popular as Sarkozy's prime minister and viewed as an urbane and reserved figure next to the volatile president, said in a statement.
Monday's result showed that Cope, a disciple of Sarkozy with hardline views on immigration and religion, won the leadership contest by 952 votes out of around 173,000 votes cast.
Cope was initially declared the winner a week ago by just 98 votes. Fillon contested that result, saying he would have won by 26 votes had some 1,000 votes from overseas territories not been omitted by mistake.
Fillon began mounting a legal challenge to Cope's victory on Monday and Alain Juppe, a co-founder of the UMP and former prime minister, begged Sarkozy to step in and defuse the crisis after his own attempts at mediation failed.
"The committee has confirmed my election. It has even recorded a bigger margin in my favor. The result is there. Everybody must now respect it," Cope said of the new score, which discounted contested areas and added votes from overseas.
Cope, who promises to put his presidential ambitions on hold if Sarkozy decides to come back to run in the 2017 presidential election, said he could not imagine that Fillon would continue his legal action against his own party.
The debacle has exposed a deep split over the party's gradual shift to the right on issues such as immigration and religion that could now reshape the political landscape.
At worst, analysts predict a break-up of a party that former President Jacques Chirac founded to keep the right on a centrist path set by Gen. Charles de Gaulle after World War II.
Even if the party can hold together, the feud risks distracting the UMP for months from its role as the main opposition party, benefiting both the left and the far-right ahead of local elections in 2014.
"This bad soap opera has to end because democracy needs an operational opposition," the Socialist Party said in a tweet.
Le Figaro urged Fillon and Cope in a front-page editorial to "stop the massacre" and said the "pitiful spectacle" of their week-long sparring was an insult to politics.
Hollande had been due to meet Cope, as UMP leader, on Monday to discuss institutional changes but the meeting was postponed after Cope rejected Juppe's suggestion of forming a new, more neutral, committee to determine the result of the November 18 vote.
The UMP appeals committee was due to give its latest verdict Monday or Tuesday on the vote, which Cope says he won by 98 votes out of nearly 175,000 cast. Fillon says he would have won by 26 votes had about 1,000 overseas ballots not been excluded.
Juppe said it was possible the UMP could hold a fresh vote, an idea backed by 71 percent of the public according to an opinion poll published in the weekly Journal du Dimanche on Sunday. Cope said the idea made no sense.
Cope, who has said he would put his presidential ambitions on hold if Sarkozy decided to run in 2017, also said he believed his mentor had no intention of interfering in the vote.
(Additional reporting by Gerard Bon, Nicholas Vinocur, Brian Love and Astrid Wendlandt, writing by Catherine Bremer)