Leadership row may cause UMP to split


France’s main conservative party was fighting to avert a split in its ranks yesterday after former prime minister François Fillon announced plans to form a breakaway group in parliament.

The UMP party has been in crisis since its leadership election ended in acrimony earlier this month. Former budget minister Jean-François Copé was declared the winner by a narrow margin, but Mr Fillon claimed votes from a number of overseas territories, which would have tipped the balance in his favour, were not counted. Both sides accuse the other of large-scale fraud.

The poisonous public row between the two men has dominated the news in France for two weeks, but the stakes have risen sharply since Mr Fillon and his supporters this week vowed to create a dissident group in parliament.

That has opened the possibility of a permanent split in the UMP, an event that could transform the political landscape and give a boost to rival parties.

Nicolas Sarkozy, who had kept a low profile since losing the presidential election in May, has stepped in as mediator, but so far his pleadings for an end to the turmoil have gone unheeded.

Power vacuum

In an attempt to defuse the row, Mr Fillon called yesterday for a working group to begin preparations for a new leadership election. The Copé camp responded with a cautious welcome, but it previously insisted members could not be consulted as long as Mr Fillon persisted with his plan for a breakaway wing. “The red line has been crossed and I draw the consequences from that,” Mr Copé told French radio.

The power vacuum caused by Mr Sarkozy’s loss has shaken the normally disciplined UMP and created its biggest crisis since the party was formed to unify fractious right-wing currents 10 years ago.

The debacle, described by the right-wing daily Le Figaro this week as “live suicide”, has provided welcome distraction for Socialist president François Hollande as he grapples with a stuttering economy and dismal approval ratings. Even Mr Hollande’s party has pleaded for an end to the row, however, saying a government needs a functional opposition. “It’s no reason to smile because, in reality, people are fed up – we have the feeling that this is more about a war of egos,” foreign minister Laurent Fabius told France Inter radio.

Mr Copé, a hardliner on immigration and crime, was initially declared the winner by just 98 votes. Mr Fillon, the urbane former prime minister representing the party’s neo-Gaullist tradition, contested that result, saying he would have won by 26 votes had some 1,000 votes from overseas territories not been omitted by mistake.

A recount last Monday showed Mr Copé won by a margin of 952 out of about 173,000 votes cast.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen said the UMP’s crisis was an opportunity to position her National Front as the country’s foremost opposition party. She says requests to join her party have shot up in recent days.

“All of this . . . should be a reason to be hopeful because it allows us to lay the groundwork for a new era,” she added.