Battle to succeed Sarkozy descends into chaos as UMP rivals both declare victory

Tue, Nov 20, 2012, 00:00

The vote for a new leader of Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP party turned into a shambles on Sunday night after both candidates declared themselves the winner amid a vicious public slanging match over dodgy ballots and fraud.

In the worst party-political mayhem in recent French memory – even more savage than the famous infighting in the Socialist party – the right was left in paralysis as the different teams of the two self-declared leaders tore into each other on live TV. French media described the electoral chaos as “surreal”.

More than 50 per cent of the 300,000 members of the UMP party turned out to vote for a new leader on Sunday following Mr Sarkozy’s defeat in the presidential election in May.

During a long and bitter election campaign, Jean-François Copé (48), a tough-talking hardliner, had played to far-right audiences, saying that French city suburbs brimmed with “anti-white” racism and that the right must take to the streets to oppose Socialist president François Hollande.

He said: “I am the tenant of a right which does not have hang-ups, which tells the truth and is comfortable with itself.”

François Fillon (58), Mr Sarkozy’s former prime minister, depicted in the press as a mild-mannered provincial gentleman, styled himself as more moderate and conciliatory, promising to “unite” the party. Mr Fillon repeatedly scored higher in popularity polls among the general public.

But the party was left confused and damaged when the voting booths closed and both camps immediately made accusations of ballot fraud, trickery and irregularities, lodging complaints with the party’s internal election monitoring body.

Amid the confusion, France was astonished to see Mr Copé hastily take to the stage in front of live TV cameras and announce that he had won, in a rapidly delivered victory speech in which he vowed to work “hand-in-hand” with the loser.

Minutes later, an incensed and shocked-looking Mr Fillon took to the stage at his headquarters to announce that he himself had won by a small margin, and that voters should now await the official announcement of the results by the party’s internal commission.

Key members of both camps rushed to television studios and proceeded to savage each other live on air, each insisting they had won.

The chaos threatens to damage hugely the party created 10 years ago by Jacques Chirac, which had always been in power until, in recent months, it lost the Senate, then the presidential election, then the parliament elections to the left.

Florian Philippot, vice-president of the far-right Front National, which has directly targeted UMP voters, described the election night as something “between Dallas and a Punch and Judy show”. – (Guardian service)