Jean-François Copé has been declared the new leader of the opposition Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), winning the battle to succeed Nicolas Sarkozy at the helm of France's right-wing opposition.
The party’s internal electoral body revealed the result after a contested weekend vote that was plagued by allegations of fraud on both sides.
Copé, 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 Copé, 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,” Copé 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 denounces party rift
Fillon, who was widely predicted to win, had been furious after the initial vote count on Monday morning, with his supporters claiming he had won by 244 votes.
Speaking at his campaign headquarters shortly after Copé’ s victory speech, Fillon 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 that he had chosen not to dispute the result.
The leadership race and subsequent fiasco over the ballot highlighted the division that has opened up between rightists and centrists since the party lost power in May.
Alain Juppé, a former foreign minister and a key figure in founding the UMP, condemned what he called “a contest of egos” that he said threatened the party’s very existence.
'You're at the wedding of the future president'
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.
Copé now faces the difficult task of re-uniting a party, which is under growing pressure from the far-right National Front (FN), to maintain its position as the main voice of France's conservative opposition.
Both Fillon, 58, and Copé, 10 years his junior, were seen as advocates of free market policies and economic reform. But they differ on social issues - Copé shares Sarkozy's approach on tighter immigration policies and a strong-armed, populist agenda on Muslim integration.
Although a recent poll revealed a majority of France’s conservatives want Nicolas Sarkozy to return to politics and fight for the presidential election in 2017, an ambitious Copé clearly has designs on the Elysée Palace.
During his first marriage in 1991 Copé declared to the assembled guests: "You're lucky, you're at the wedding of the future president."
The marriage didn't last – Copé divorced in 2007 – but his ambitions have never faltered.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)