Nicolas Sarkozy ally wins French right leadership battle

Nicola Sarkozy

Rightist Jean-Francois Cope , an ally of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, claimed the leadership of France's main conservative party on Monday in a closely fought two-way contest marred by mutual accusations of voter fraud.

Cope, already the incumbent leader of the UMP party, beat centrist former prime minister Francois Fillon by 50.03 percent to 49.97 percent, the head of an internal voting commission said - a margin of just 98 votes out of almost 175,000 cast.

The victory could pave the way for Cope, whose controversial campaign included accusations that anti-white racism was rife in France, either to run for president himself in 2017 or stand aside for Sarkozy if his mentor chooses to re-enter politics.

My hands and my arms are wide open, Cope told supporters at party headquarters in Paris after the result was announced.

It is in that state of mind that I telephoned Francois Fillon this evening, it is in that state of mind that I asked him to join me.

Fillon, speaking at his campaign headquarters shortly after Cope' s victory speech, denounced ballot booth irregularities and warned of a deepening split in the centre-right group.

What strikes me is the rift at the heart of our political camp, a political and moral fracture, Fillon said in a brief speech, adding th at he had chosen not to dispute the result.

The race descended into chaos earlier as both contenders alleged fraud in a vote that highlighted a deep split between rightists and centrists since the party lost power in May.

The bickering wrecked a contest designed to give the right a fresh start after it lost its 17-year hold on the presidency in May, and prompted political commentators to warn that the UMP could collapse.

The opposition infighting has provided respite for President Francois Hollande, w ho faced fresh w oes on Monday a s ratings agency Moody's announced that it was downgrading French debt by one notch to Aa1 from triple-A.

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