France UMP vote: Fillon and Cope both claim victory
A vote to decide who will lead France's conservative opposition UMP has plunged the party into disarray and acrimony.
Both candidates have claimed victory and accused their rival of fraud and ballot-stuffing.
Only a handful of votes separate right-wing candidate Jean-Francois Cope and ex-Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
A final result is expected later on Monday, but party grandees said the UMP had been damaged, and urged both candidates to end their war or words.
Watching the results come in was like seeing a really crummy disaster movie. The events were terrible, but it was so bad you just wanted to laugh.
Mid-Sunday evening it was clear the two men - Francois Fillon and Jean-Francois Cope - were within an ace of each other. Then the knives came out.
Of course, neither contender personally dealt the blows. But each authorised a succession of lieutenants to appear on television, levelling insults and accusations against the other.
At midnight, Mr Cope launched a putsch - claiming victory before the electorial commission had come close to pronouncing. Straight away, Mr Fillon did the same.
The whole thing was both grim and risible. It seems to be taken as read that there was ballot-stuffing in a number of voting bureaux. What does that tell us about the state of French politics?
Whichever of the two men ends up as leader will face serious questions over his legitimacy. The UMP has daggers drawn. It is not entirely fanciful to suggest its very existence as a party is at stake.
"The movement has emerged divided and thus weakened by this excessive confrontation," wrote the former prime minister and foreign minister, Alain Juppe, in his blog.
"Throughout the campaign, it has been less a question of the future of the UMP and more about the two candidates' obsession with 2017 the date of the next presidential election.
"We have to get out of this lamentable situation to avoid the implosion of our party."
Mr Juppe called on both Mr Cope, the party's secretary general since 2010 and Mr Fillon, prime minister under Mr Sarkozy, to "accept the decision of the electoral commission when it is delivered".Bitterly fought
When initial results emerged late on Sunday, Mr Cope was narrowly in the lead, surprising political pundits who had expected the former prime minister to win. Opinion polls had consistently given Mr Fillon the edge.
The contest has been bitterly fought throughout by the two rivals and, even before the result came through in the southern coastal city of Nice, Mr Cope's team complained of fraud and demanded an investigation.
A UMP deputy mayor backing Mr Cope said that there had been "a certain number of irregularities" in polling stations in the Alpes-Maritimes area. In one polling station in Paris, a party official complained that there were 40 more ballots than voters on the party list.
Mr Fillon's team also registered a complaint.
The leading conservative daily newspaper, Le Figaro, called the election an open crisis and French political analysts say the immediate beneficiary of the vote could be the far-right National Front, whose candidate, Marine Le Pen, polled third in the presidential election in April.
The UMP was only created 10 years ago by President Jacques Chirac to unite the diverse wings of the French right.
End Quote Jacques Camus La Republique du Centre
Quite obviously, the confusion which has set in will only increase 'Sarkozy nostalgia'”
The party was very much his personal fiefdom until he retired from politics in 2007 and was succeeded by Mr Sarkozy.
The two candidates have different visions for the party.
Mr Cope is considered more right wing. Last month he produced "A Manifesto for an Uninhibited Right" in which he claimed that gangs in the city suburbs were fostering "anti-white racism".
Mr Fillon is seen as sober and more restrained.
The winner will inherit a party in difficult financial straits, after a series of electoral setbacks over the past five years, culminating in Nicolas Sarkozy's presidential defeat to Socialist rival Francois Hollande.