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French right in disarray after hardliner wins leadership

Claims of ballot rigging mar Jean-François Copé's victory as race to succeed Sarkozy ends in acrimony

The hardliner Jean-François Copé was declared the new leader of the French centre-right by a handful of votes late last night after a second surreal day of civil war within France's largest political party.

After a day of claims and counter-claims, counts and re-counts, insults and accusations, Mr Copé, 48, finally emerged as successor to Nicolas Sarkozy as president of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).

But Sunday's chaotic internal party election, marred by mutual accusations of vote-rigging and dirty tricks, threatens to destroy France's main opposition party. The defeated candidate, François Fillon, who lost by 98 votes out of 176, 608, spoke last night of a "political and moral fracture" within the UMP and hinted that he might pursue his political career elsewhere.

The moderate former Prime Minister, 58, who had been favourite to succeed Mr Sarkozy as UMP president, said that he "acknowleged" the result but that the "methods deployed" could "not win any approval."

"The fracture in our camp is manifest," Mr Fillon said. "It is both political and moral… I will let it be known in the days to come how I will continue my political engagement." The fact that Mr Fillon referred to the centre-right "camp" rather than the UMP led commentators to speculate that he might intended to build for a 2017 presidential run outside the party.

Earlier a cock-a-hoop Mr Copé, who had fought an aggressive, hard-right campaign attacking Mr Fillon as "soft" and "detached", said that his "arms were wide open" to work in future with the former Prime Minister.

Another former Prime Minister, the party's founder and elder statesman, Alan Juppé had warned earlier that the UMP could fall apart unless the internal wounds were healed rapidly.

"I am sounding a cry of alarm," Mr Juppé said. "The very existence of the UMP is at stake today. It is time to end this confrontation."

Any chance of a return for Mr Sarkozy is likely to be ended when he appears before a magistrate in Bordeaux on Thursday and expected to be placed under formal investigation – a step short of a criminal charge – for alleged illegal campaign financing in 2007.

Mr Fillon, 58, who was Mr Sarkozy's prime minister for five years, had been expected to win Sunday's contest easily. But that forecast was based on polls of UMP voters, not of UMP party members, and many of the party faithful appear to have responded enthusiastically to Mr Copé's hard-right campaign.

Mr Copé, of jewish origin but non-practising, said that he wants a French Right "without complexes". In practice this means refusing alliances with the National Front but stealing some of their nationalist, authoritarian and anti-immigrant themes.

Endless in-fighting once earned French politicians of the right and centre the title of the "stupidest Right in the world." The intensity of the divisions, revealed by Sunday's muddled and disputed vote, suggests that civil war is about to break out again.

The new battle, though also rooted in personal loathings, is partly a struggle for the soul of the centre-right.

l France's finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, blamed the poor economic management of previous governments after Moody's ratings agency downgraded the country's sovereign rating by one notch to Aa1 from Aaa.