Chaos and civil war threatened to engulf the main French opposition party yesterday after an acrimonious leadership contest ended in a virtual dead-heat and accusations of vote-rigging and fraud.
Ségolène Royal, the former presidential candidate and the messiah of a new, more telegenic left, was defeated by a handful of votes by Martine Aubry, the mayor of Lille and the mother of the French 35-hour week.
Ms Royal, 55, and her supporters accused the Socialist Party leadership of "stealing" the election by rigging the ballot in two large regional federations, including Ms Aubry's own fiefdom around Lille in the north.
After a night in which both sides repeatedly claimed victory, a final, official count suggested that Ms Aubry, daughter of the former European Commission president Jacques Delors, had won by 42 votes out of the more than 130,000 cast by party members.
The two women, vitriolic rivals for many years, spoke on the telephone at 3am yesterday to try to prevent France's principal centre-left party from plunging into a long winter of political and legal bickering which would delight supporters of President Nicolas Sarkozy. Officials said that the women ended up screaming insults at one another.
Ms Royal, who appeared to be cruising to a clear victory earlier in the night, has said that she will take "all necessary political and legal steps" to force a re-run of the ballot.
One of her principal lieutenants, Manuel Valls, spoke yesterday of evidence of systematic "cheating" in the internal ballot for party leader, or first secretary. "We are determined not to let victory be stolen from us," he said. "I appeal for a revolt of the party membership. The only solution, if we want to avoid a long and deep fracture of the party, is to vote again."
Ms Aubry, 58, and her camp dismissed all possibility of a re-run, or even a recount, and said that she had won an "indisputable" victory. The national committee of the Socialist Party – the alternate "party of government" for the past 27 years – will meet on Tuesday night to consider the claims, and counterclaims, of vote-rigging.
Illegal "block" voting and the creation of legions of phantom members have long been the party's way of life. The Royal camp was, however, outraged when the large Nord federation – Ms Aubry's home region – reported a near 80 per cent landslide for its local heroine after the trend in most other areas had favoured Ms Royal.
Another vote-rich region, Seine-Maritime around Rouen, also bucked the pro-Royal trend, which was especially strong in the south and the west and in parts of the greater Paris area.
The outgoing leader of the party, François Hollande, hinted strongly yesterday that he expected Ms Aubry's razor-thin victory to stand in the name of party "unity".
Mr Hollande, who has been first secretary for the past 11 years, is very badly placed to calm the crisis within the party. He is Ms Royal's estranged partner and the father of her four children. He is suspected in the Royal camp of doing everything possible to block her ambition to rebuild the party in her pragmatic, charismatic image.
Political commentators in France compared the outcome to the disputed result of the US presidential poll in Florida in 2000. A suspicion of banana-republican methods hangs over both elections. At least bananas flourish in Florida. They are harder to grow in Rouen or Lille.