France’s main centre-right opposition UMP party general secretary, Jean-Francois Cope (centre) is congratulated by team campaign members. Image Credit: AFP

Paris: France’s right-wing UMP party was split down the middle on Tuesday after a venomous battle for its leadership, narrowly won by ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy’s ally Jean-Francois Cope, was further marred by fraud allegations.

Cope, who defeated former prime minister Francois Fillon by just 98 votes on Monday to take the helm of the main opposition party, immediately extended an olive branch to his foe saying his “hands were outstretched and arms wide open”.

On Tuesday, he launched further damage control, saying the “hour has come to reconquer the hearts of the French,” and called for the party to turn the page.

“It is now that we have to rebuild,” he said, as sources close to the new UMP leader said he had offered Fillon the post of party vice-president.

UMP party heavyweight Alain Juppe, Sarkozy’s foreign minister, meanwhile stressed the “urgent need” to unite the party.

The public slanging match between the two men in the poll run-up and after reached such a pitch that UMP became the top trending hashtag on the French edition of Twitter, where the candidates were the targets of a deluge of mockery.

The debacle had the far-right National Front rubbing its hands in glee, and eyeing an increase in its share of right-wing votes.

“Did you see the pathetic manner in which this election was held? The insults, the threats, the suspicion,” National Front leader Marine Le Pen said.

“This party is today split 50/50. A split party is by definition a party that is greatly weakened.”

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the spokeswoman of the Socialist government that took over from the UMP six months ago, compared the election to a “difficult birth.”

“This tragicomedy is a bad vaudeville act that does no honour to French democracy,” added Bruno Le Roux, the head of the Socialists’ parliamentary faction.

Both Fillon, 58, and Cope, 48, are advocates of free market policies and economic reform. But they differ on social issues, with Cope sharing Sarkozy’s tough-talking approach to immigration and Islam.

Fillon stopped short of rejecting the result but mentioned “many irregularities” in the electoral process and said it was evidence of a deep rift in the party.

He spoke of a “political and moral split” in the party.

However Fillon’s allies said on Tuesday that he was not ending his political career, without specifying exactly what his role would be.

Cope is not even certain to be the party’s next candidate for the French presidency in 2017 as Sarkozy — whom polls say most UMP supporters want to have another tilt at the top job — has not ruled out a return to politics.

Cope is taking over a party well-placed to capitalise on Socialist President Francois Hollande’s slump in popularity and the economic gloom engulfing France.

Fillon, who was prime minister for five years under Sarkozy, had gone into the vote as the marginal favourite, hoping to sell himself as a unity candidate capable of attracting centrist voters.

He accused his rival of opportunism, while seeking to portray himself as an experienced statesman — a stance that prompted Cope to dismiss him as the “Hollande of the right,” in a reference to the president’s perceived lack of charisma and reputation for dithering.

Cope last month published A Manifesto for an Uninhibited Right, in which he lambasted a culture of “anti-white racism” amongst immigrant communities in impoverished urban areas.