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French conservatives in a shambles

The conservative party of the former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, held emergency meetings yesterday to try to figure out who's in charge, after a disputed election for a new leader that could reshape French politics.

PARIS // The conservative party of the former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, held emergency meetings yesterday to try to figure out who's in charge, after a disputed election for a new leader that could reshape French politics.

After a decade at the helm of one of the world's leading economies, the Union for a Popular Movement party is now in a shambles.

Central to the troubles is a debate among conservatives over immigration and Islam in France. The election a week ago split party members into those leaning toward the anti-immigrant far right, represented by Jean-Francois Cope, and those holding more centrist views, supporting Francois Fillon.

Mr Cope, who led France's push to ban face-covering Islamic veils, was initially declared the winner. But uncounted votes were then discovered that could swing the vote in Mr Fillon's favour.

A UMP commission that handles vote disputes convened yesterday to discuss what to do. Then Mr Fillon's team, arguing that the commission was weighted in Mr Cope's favor, suspended its involvement around midday.

The former prime minister, Alain Juppe, was to meet with both candidates last night to try to mediate a solution. Mr Juppe knows his task is nearly insurmountable.

He said he was hoping to "cultivate a small flame of hope", but admitted "I have very few chances" of success.

"If this evening, Jean-Francois Cope and Francois Fillon do not accept what I propose ... I have no ability to impose it," he admitted.

Both Mr Cope and Mr Fillon want to lead opposition to the Socialist president, Francois Hollande - and run for president themselves in 2017.

Since Mr Sarkozy left office in May, France's presidency, parliament and most regional governments have all been under Socialist control.

France's far right National Front is hoping to capitalise on the UMP's troubles and bring in new support from the hard-right members of the conservative party.

A new centrist party, UDI, has already reaped benefits from the drama, winning new members over the past week.

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