The battle to succeed Nicolas Sarkozy at the helm of France's right-wing opposition UMP party turned into a shambles Monday, with both candidates claiming victory amid accusations of vote-rigging.
Jean-Francois Cope, the party's populist secretary-general, declared to cheering supporters after voting closed late Sunday that he was the victor, but ex-prime minister Francois Fillon announced just minutes later that he had won.
Cope repeated his claim on breakfast television on Monday, as Fillon supporters took to the airwaves to insist their man had triumphed in the vote that came six months after Sarkozy's presidential election defeat to the Socialist Francois Hollande.
Both camps claimed there had been irregularities -- and even some cheating -- in voting in several areas and it was unclear how long it would take the electoral commission to check the ballots and announce a winner.
The public slanging match -- reminiscent of the bitter in-fighting that for years dogged the Socialist party -- reached such a pitch that UMP party heavyweight Alain Juppe, who was Sarkozy's foreign minister, called on the candidates to put a stop to their supporters' "invectives".
"What I feared has happened," he wrote on his blog.
"The movement has emerged divided and thus weakened by this excessive confrontation. Throughout the campaign, it has been less a question of the future of the UMP and more about the two candidates' obsession with 2017," he said.
French politician Jean-Francois Cope (centre) arrives at the right-wing opposition UMP's headquarters to wait for election results. The battle to succeed Nicolas Sarkozy at the helm of the UMP has turned into a shambles with both candidates claiming victory amid accusations of vote-rigging.
That is the date of the next presidential election.
But whoever emerges as the new leader is not certain to be the party's candidate then as Sarkozy -- whom polls say most UMP supporters want to have another tilt at the presidency -- has not ruled out a return to politics.
Both Fillon, 58, and Cope, ten years his junior, are advocates of free market policies and economic reform. But they differ on social issues, with Cope sharing Sarkozy's tough-talking approach on immigration and the integration of Europe's largest Muslim community.
Cope aides said he had won 1,000 more votes than his rival in a poll in which more than half of the UMP's 300,000 members had cast their ballots. Fillon said he was 224 votes ahead.
But the electoral commission suspended the count till 10:00 am (0900 GMT) Monday, with the chairman saying records from 50 percent of the regions were missing.
Fillon appeared more conciliatory on Monday morning. He still insisted he was ahead but added in a statement that "only the official and definitive figures will enable us to resolve the situation".
Whoever emerges as the new UMP leader will be taking over a party well-placed to capitalise on Hollande's slump in popularity and the economic gloom engulfing France.
But he may also face a difficult task in uniting the party after a bitter battle that delighted the UMP's rivals.
"It is obvious that whoever is elected president of the UMP will have no legitimacy whatsoever given that he will be in charge of a party broken in two," said Florian Philipott, deputy leader of the far-right National Front.
Former French premier Francois Fillon arrives at the UMP party headquarters in Paris. The battle to succeed Nicolas Sarkozy at the helm of France's right-wing opposition party has turned into a shambles, with both candidates claiming victory amid accusations of vote-rigging.
Fillon, who was prime minister for five years under Sarkozy, went into the vote as the marginal favourite, hoping to sell himself as a unity candidate capable of appealing to centrist voters.
He accused his rival of opportunism, while seeking to portray himself as an experienced statesman -- a stance that prompted Cope to dismiss him as the "Hollande of the right," in a reference to the president's perceived lack of charisma and reputation for dithering.
Cope has taken up where Sarkozy left off, unabashed in his bid to woo voters from the National Front, whose historically strong score at this year's presidential election split the right-wing vote and torpedoed Sarkozy's re-election bid.
Cope last month published "A Manifesto for an Uninhibited Right", in which he lambasted a culture of "anti-white racism" amongst immigrant communities in impoverished urban areas.