PARIS — Former President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative party, now the main opposition force to France's governing Socialists, moved deeper into disarray on Monday in the latest chapter of a bitter leadership dispute that risks splitting the party in two.
A recount by a special party commission of the Nov. 18 vote for chief of the Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, confirmed the narrow victory – 952 votes – of Jean-Francois Cope over former Prime Minister Francois Fillion.
But Fillon called the recount "illegal" and his lawyer raised the possibility of challenging the commission's objectivity in court. Some floated the idea of forming a separate UMP group in parliament. Fillon said he will decide his next step on Tuesday.
"We are witnessing the destruction of a party," Fillon loyalist lawmaker Philippe Goujon said on iTele TV.
The week-long drama whose outcome could change the French political landscape has revealed a dark side of the UMP, including allegations of vote fraud, suspicions of manipulation within the UMP machine, and pettiness by those seeking to lead.
Some within the UMP are calling for a new vote for party leader, and the dispute could allow Sarkozy to try a political comeback. He left office in May after a single term as president.
The rivalry for the presidency of the UMP grew into a public dispute after Fillon contested the initial results announced a week ago, claiming voter irregularities after Cope was declared winner by 98 votes.
In fact, three regions had gone uncounted. That led to the recount, and Fillon's refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the special commission. Former Prime Minister Alain Juppe made a brief offer to mediate the dispute, but abandoned it after a half-hour encounter.
In his victory speech, Cope vowed to rebuild the party "town by town, village by village" to ensure it recovers from what is now a "disastrous image" so that the conservatives can concentrate on winning local elections in 2014.
The Socialist Party currently controls most towns, regions and the government.
"It is up to each of us ... to choose forgiveness instead of division, the future instead of rancor," Cope said, calling on Fillon to join him.
Party leadership is a typical step for French politicians who hope to vie for the presidency, and the battle between Cope and Fillon is widely viewed as a power struggle between two potential conservative candidates to face off Socialist President Francois Hollande in five years.
Cope is a hardliner within the party whose views are closely aligned with those of Sarkozy, while Fillon leans to the party center.
The stakes for the UMP are high. The infighting has already led to some party defections, with numerous disgusted members reportedly joining a new centrist party while others may be contemplating a move to the far-right National Front.
With a schism between two factions, the UMP would limp toward its main short-term challenge, regaining traction after a series of electoral defeats to the Socialists so that is poised for the 2017 presidential vote.
But a front-page headline Monday in the conservative Le Figaro newspaper, which is normally upbeat about the party, said the UMP is in the process of committing suicide.