Rivals both claim victory in battle to succeed Sarkozy

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The vote to succeed Nicolas Sarkozy as the leader of the French right ended in acrimonious confusion last night with each candidate crying victory and accusing his opponent of fraud.

Both the confrontational Jean-Francois Copé and the moderate former prime minister, François Fillon, claimed to have won the contest for presidency of France's largest political party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).

Mr Fillon, 58, had been the favourite of centre-right sympathisers but yesterday's ballot was restricted to the 250,000 or so members of the UMP who responded with enthusiasm to Mr Copé's aggressive, hard-right campaign on crime, immigration and Islam.

Mr Fillon's team claimed to have won by 190 out of 160,000 votes cast. Mr Copé, 48, announced that he had won by 1,000 votes.

Both sides challenged voting returns from a string of districts and the result may be disputed for weeks. There were even predictions from senior party members last night that the UMP might split apart.

The allegations of fraud are embarrassing for a party which claims to stand for democracy, morality and law and order.

In the Côte d'Azur, the Copé camp claimed there had been a "irregularities". In Nice there was a recount after 1,178 votes were cast but only 590 voters were recorded.

In Paris, which was expected to lean towards Mr Fillon, his supporters said the party's organisation, run by Mr Copé as UMP secretary-general, had deliberately reduced the number of polling stations.