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Sarkozy steps in to stabilise dispute between French centre-right rivals

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After two weeks of fraternal menaces, insults and accusations, peace appears to be breaking out on the French centre-right.

The rivals in a viciously disputed election for the leadership of France’s largest political party were discussing ways of organising a new vote early next year.

The possibility of a permanent schism in the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) – and the threat of a public disavowal by former President Nicolas Sarkozy – forced the warring, would-be party chieftains to meet twice on Monday.

The UMP secretary general, Jean-François Copé, the official winner of a chaotic internal election last month, was under pressure to climb down and agree that the 300,000 party members should vote again.

His rival, the former Prime Minister, François Fillon, defeated by a handful of votes, has alleged “fraud on an industrial scale”. After accusing Mr Copé of turning the UMP into a “mafia”, he created a breakaway group in the national assembly last week – the Rassemblement-UMP  or RUMP.

Mr Fillon has promised to dissolve this rebel group as soon as Mr Cope agrees to a new election under independent supervision. Mr Copé has so far offered only a party referendum on whether or not to vote again - in 2014.

Mr Copé is under pressure to give more ground. Following a first failed attempt at mediation, ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy threatened at the weekend to declare both men unfit to succeed him as the leader of the French Centre-Right unless they kissed and made up by Tuesday. 

Whether a new election could unite a deeply divided party remains open to question. The battle has exposed personal hatreds which go far beyond normal political rivalries.

Although Mr Copé campaigned on hard-right, populist themes and Mr Fillon took a more traditional or moderate approach, many of their leading supporters find themselves trapped on the “wrong” side of the ideological fault-line. 

Some moderate party leaders joined the Copé camp because they detest Mr Fillon. Some hard-right chieftains backed Mr Fillon because they expected the former Prime Minister to win.

Both men have been damaged by the dispute, according to opinion polls, but Mr Copé’s poll ratings have plunged more than those of  Mr Fillon. Although both sides cheated in the election on 21 November, one UMP insider told The Independent that the Copé camp had used its control of the party machine to “cheat massively and professionally”.

Some political commentators have suggested that the battle has played into the hand of Mr Sarkozy.  Whoever wins a new UMP leadership election, the former President could now emerge as the only credible centre-right challenger to President François Hollande in 2017.

Although Mr Sarkozy never commented on the dispute in public, his intervention has, in effect, ended his retirement from politics. Two Socialist politicians lodged a formal complaint on Monday alleging that the ex-President had infringed the neutrality demanded of him as one of the “sages” who sit on France’s constitutional watchdog, the Conseil Constitutionnel.