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Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, middle, leaves the courthouse in Bordeaux, France, Thursday. (Bob Edme/AP)
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, middle, leaves the courthouse in Bordeaux, France, Thursday. (Bob Edme/AP)

Sarkozy’s party in ‘ fratricidal’ leadership struggle Add to ...

Eight days of messy infighting for the leadership of the political party once headed by Nicolas Sarkozy peaked Tuesday, with the two contenders agreeing to have members vote again, in a referendum, to decide whether to have another leadership vote.

The struggle for the presidency of the UMP, France’s main right-wing party wing party and heir to the party founded by Charles de Gaulle after Second World War, was supposed to define its direction for the future.

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Instead, France was treated to a madcap week featuring two competing self-proclaimed UMP leaders, allegations of ballot fraud, bailiffs showing up at party headquarters and the reappearance of Mr. Sarkozy on the public stage – as a peacemaker.

The former president brokered a meeting between the two claimants to the UMP leadership, Jean-François Copé and François Fillon.

They met Tuesday afternoon at offices in the neo-classical marble halls of the French National Assembly.

The two men have been at odds since May 19 when they took turns claiming victory while the party was still trying to sort out results from a tight membership-wide vote. On Monday, an internal party panel declared that, out of nearly 173,000 ballots, Mr. Copé had edged his rival by 952 votes, a 0.5 per cent margin of victory.

This didn’t end the crisis.

Mr. Fillon announced Tuesday morning that he was creating a splinter caucus among the party’s parliamentarians, the Rassemblement UMP.

He also asked that a new vote be conducted within three months, under the oversight of an independent panel, calling it “a final gesture of conciliation.”

Mr. Copé made a counter-offer of a referendum among party members, to be held in December or January, that would decide whether to hold another leadership vote. “That’s the path of wisdom,” he said..

Mr. Fillon agreed on certain conditions, such as that the referendum be conducted online, by an independent organization.

On Twitter, meanwhile, Mr. Fillon’s caucus was already being mocked for its acronym, RUMP, the latest comedic morsel in a political soap opera that has kept pundits and humorists buy.

But behind the mirth were high stakes.

“This fratricidal fight,” said Mr. Fillon, “is masking a deeper debate about what should be our political line.”

Mr. Fillon, who was prime minister under Mr. Sarkozy, has portrayed himself as a moderate statesman who can rally voters in the centre of the political spectrum.

Working in a more populist style, Mr. Copé has tacked to the right to regain voters the UMP lost to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front party.

During his campaign, Mr. Copé complained about “anti-white racism” he said the French suffer and said France’s political right needs to be “décomplexé,” or lose its hang ups.

In a speech that was seen as an attack on French Muslims, Mr. Copé said he sympathized with parents whose children had their pain au chocolat treat “snatched by some thugs” in the school yard because “it’s forbidden to eat during Ramadan.”

Each side has accused the other of electoral dirty tricks, from ballot-box stuffing to using bogus proxy forms and fake signatures. Mr. Fillon has threatened court actions and at one point sent bailiffs to the UMP offices in a failed bid to seize electoral records.

One point both men agreed on was that the mayhem badly damaged the UMP’s reputation.

“Our party is in turmoil and it is in a dead-end,” Mr. Fillon said, while Mr. Copé said “what is happening is distressing.”

The UMP’s foibles have delighted its foes. Alluding to the competing leadership claims, Socialist lawmaker Bruno Le Roux quipped that “we loved the UMP so much … that having two of them doesn’t bother us at all.”

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