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Fear and mutual loathing may destroy Sarkozy's party

Seldom in any democratic country can such fraternal hatred, such bloody-minded determination to eviscerate nominal colleagues, have been exposed within one political party.

Forget John Major's war with the Tory Eurosceptic "bastards" in the 1990s. Forget Republican primary "attack ads" in the United States. For eight days, leading members of the French centre-right have been ripping one another apart, live on radio and television, or exchanging insults and accusations by Twitter.

François Fillon, who was prime minister until six months ago, has accused his leadership rival Jean-François Copé of turning France's largest political party into a "mafia". Mr Copé has accused Mr Fillon and his supporters of "massive, premeditated fraud" in an internal election for party president which ended in a near-dead heat last weekend.

A despairing attempt last night to prevent the implosion of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), the party founded by Jacques Chirac 10 years ago to end 30 years of civil warfare on the French centre-right, appeared to have failed. The man called in to mediate, Alain Juppé, a former prime minister and founding president of the party, said beforehand that he had "only a very small chance" of keeping the "small, flickering flame" of the UMP alight.

The dispute is partly about personal ambition and personal loathing. But it is also a struggle for the soul of a French centre-right which has been left wandering in the moral wilderness by the defeat of Sarkozyism and the resurgence of a cosmetically cleaned-up but still xenophobic National Front.

A break-up of the UMP would trigger tectonic shifts, or linked explosions, in French party politics, which could lead to the emergence of a "new" centrist movement but also to a strengthened hard right.

The day after last Sunday's election, Mr Copé, 48, the party's general secretary, was declared the winner by 98 votes out of 170,000. Mr Fillon, 58, grudgingly "acknowledged" the outcome but said the party had been "fractured morally and politically" by Mr Copé's dubious "methods" on polling day and by his aggressive hard-right campaign.

On Wednesday, it emerged that 1,300 votes from French islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans (which are constitutionally part of France) had been "forgotten" in the final count. Once they were included, Mr Fillon won by 26 votes. Mr Copé refused to step down.

On Wednesday night, Mr Fillon announced live on television that he no longer wanted the UMP presidency. He simply wanted Mr Copé's victory annulled for the sake of "honesty" and "morality" and the credibility of his political "family".

The muddle is also the result of seven years of Sarkozyism. By zigzagging between economic realism, pro-Europeanism and crude appeals to "national identity", Mr Sarkozy pulled down all the old political signposts of the French centre-right. The old opposition between Gaullism (populist, nationalist and statist) and Giscardism (pro-European and liberal, both socially and economically) has disappeared or become blurred.