In this Oct. 25 file photo, former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon,… (Christophe Ena / Associated…)
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.
Insults and accusations of fraud flew thick and fast between the rival camps of Jean-Francois Cope and Francois Fillon, who are fighting to lead former French President Nicolas Sarkozy's center-right Union for a Popular Movement party, or UMP. With a vote recount underway, one of the party's founders warned that the continued squabbling meant "the very existence of the UMP is at risk today."
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 -- one a favorite in the polls -- who advocate markedly different policies.
Copé, 48, a no-nonsense hawk, courted the party's right wing by proclaiming the merits of an "uninhibited" UMP and addressing populist themes such as "anti-white racism."
Fillon, 58, sold himself as more moderate, unifying and conciliatory, and led in the opinion polls throughout the election race.
Although no result has been officially confirmed, Copé caused widespread astonishment Sunday evening by declaring himself victorious. French radio commentators likened Copé's behavior to that of a "South American colonel from the 1960s."
A furious Fillon lashed back, going on television to insist that no, he was the winner.
By Monday lunchtime, a winner had still not been officially declared.
The nasty infighting has dealt another blow to a party that has been threatening to implode ever since Sarkozy lost his bid for reelection in May to Socialist candidate François Hollande.
Copé and Fillon had insisted that they wanted a civilized election campaign, but increasingly struggled to hide their contempt for each other. Party heavyweights have stepped in with appeals for calm.
"What is happening is even worse than I foresaw," Alain Juppé, a former foreign minister and one of the UMP's founders, told French television.
As the votes were being recounted amid claims and counterclaims of victory, there were even calls for the former president to make a comeback.
"Neither Fillon nor Copé have won. ... We can only hope Nicolas Sarkozy will return," one UMP party member told French radio.
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