Jean-Francois Cope won a narrow victory to become leader of France's… (Miguel Medina, AFP/Getty…)
PARIS — France's center-right political opposition was in disarray Monday after the election of a new party leader descended into an extraordinary mud-slinging match between two candidates who both declared themselves the winner.
After more than 24 hours of wrangling in which insults and accusations of fraud flew thick and fast between the rival camps, Jean-Francois Cope was finally declared victorious with just 98 more votes than rival Francois Fillon, out of more than 174,000 ballots cast.
Both were fighting to take control of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy's center-right Union for a Popular Movement party, or UMP.
The victory was a remarkable turnaround for Cope, 48, a tough-talking hard-liner who had courted the party's right wing by proclaiming the merits of an "uninhibited" UMP and addressing populist themes such as bemoaning what he termed "anti-white racism." He had trailed in the polls throughout the election campaign.
Fillon, a 58-year-old former prime minister, the favorite, had sold himself as more moderate, unifying and conciliatory.
The long-awaited results, which came just after 10:30 p.m., ended a day of squabbling that UMP founders warned meant the "very existence" of the party was at risk.
Cope and Fillon had insisted they wanted a civilized campaign, but they increasingly struggled to hide their contempt for each other. The infighting, including accusations of vote rigging, dealt another blow to a party that has been threatening to implode since Sarkozy lost his bid for reelection in May to Socialist candidate Francois Hollande.
On paper, the vote to elect a new leader could not have seemed simpler. About 300,000 party members across France were to choose Sunday between two candidates who advocate markedly different policies.
That evening, Cope shocked France by declaring himself the winner before the vote counting was over. Radio commentators likened his behavior to that of a "South American colonel from the 1960s." Fillon retaliated by claiming he had won.
Cope now faces the challenge of reuniting the bitterly divided UMP. He said it was time for the opposition to set to work challenging the Socialist government.
"Today we begin a great adventure, which is the rebuilding of our political party," Cope said, adding that he held "no bitterness or rancor" toward his rival.
Amid the election fiasco, there were even calls for the former president to make a comeback.
"Neither Fillon nor Cope has won.... We can only hope Nicolas Sarkozy will return," one UMP party member told French radio on Monday.
The business daily Les Echos agreed. "Even without knowing who the winner is, we can state that the true victor of this vote is called Nicolas Sarkozy," it wrote in an editorial.
Willsher is a special correspondent.