French right splits as leadership crisis deepens
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Former French prime minister Francois Fillon has created a breakaway parliamentary group a week after losing a hotly contested vote for leadership of Nicolas Sarkozy’s former ruling UMP party, confirming a partisan split in the French right.
The crisis in France's right-wing opposition deepened Tuesday as dissenters led by ex-premier Francois Fillon formed a breakaway faction and calls for a fresh leadership vote were rejected.
The UMP, the political heir to the party founded by Charles de Gaulle after World War II, was on the verge of collapse after accusations of vote-rigging tarnished the election to choose a successor to ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy.
The UMP is facing the spectre of an unprecedented split, with Fillon and his leadership rival Jean-Francois Cope refusing to back down in an increasingly bitter dispute.
Cope, the UMP's secretary general and a close Sarkozy ally, urged the party to move on from the chaos but opposed holding a fresh vote.
"The time is not right in the heat of the moment, in the bitterness... to say we must vote again right away," Cope said on France Info radio.
"The time has come to turn the page. An election was held and its result was confirmed twice."
UMP 'has no leader'
But Fillon insisted on a new vote within three months, to be supervised by an independent commission, and upped the stakes in the dispute by forming a new parliamentary wing.
Fillon's Rally for the UMP (R-UMP) is expected to attract up to 60 of the UMP's 194 members and associate members in the National Assembly -- depriving the party of some of the 42,000 euros ($54,000) per member it receives in crucial public funding every year.
"Nobody today is the leader of the UMP," Fillon said. "We are neither defeated, nor mute, we are standing up."
The week-old leadership battle has seen the party's image badly dented, benefitting Socialist President Francois Hollande as he struggles with a flat economy and dropping popularity.
The growing rift is threatening the existence of the UMP, formed a decade ago to bring together traditional Gaullist conservatives, centrists, Christian democrats and liberals.
Sarkozy 'wants' new vote
Increasingly worried by the crisis, Sarkozy has stepped in behind the scenes and according to several sources urged a new leadership vote.
Sarkozy, defeated by Hollande for the presidency in May, is anxious to keep the right-wing alliance together in case he makes a comeback bid for the presidency in 2017.
Sources close to Sarkozy said he had spoken several times with both rivals in order to "preserve the unity of his political family".
At Sarkozy's urging, the two met Tuesday at the National Assembly, where Cope reportedly suggested holding a referendum among party members on whether to organise a new leadership vote.
Fillon 'accepts' referendum
UMP government minister Patrick Ollier suggested that Copé’s proposal to hold a referendum had been accepted by Fillon.
Ollier said Fillon’s approval of the referendum would not however affect his bid to create a new parliamentary group within the UMP.
Cope has urged Fillon to abandon the idea of a splinter parliamentary group, which many UMP members in the upper house Senate are also expected to join. Fillon has said he will do so if another leadership vote is called.
Lawmakers have until Friday to declare their party affiliation for next year's funds.
A party appeals commission on Monday confirmed Cope's win in the November 18 vote, raising his margin of victory from 98 votes to nearly 1,000 following an examination of complaints over alleged irregularities.
Fillon's camp has accused the commission of bias and said he will pursue legal action including a civil suit to have the results overturned.
(FRANCE24 with wires)
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