PARIS — France's opposition conservatives sank deeper into a leadership crisis on Tuesday that could split the party, as moderates demanded a new vote to replace the disputed election of a hardliner and formed a breakaway wing.
Jean-Francois Cope, affirmed as winner of the UMP's Nov. 18 leadership vote in revised ballot results on Monday, said it was time to move on from a week-old dispute that has left ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy's party in chaos.
But his rival Francois Fillon said he and his supporters were forming a new centre-right group within the UMP while he presses the party to hold a fresh vote from scratch.
"I am fighting over principles. Nobody today is in fact leader of the UMP," Fillon said, as he called for a new vote within three months to be supervised by an independent body.
"We are neither beaten nor mute. We are on our feet," he said, but added that he still hoped to be able to hold together a party formed a decade ago to knit together centrist and harder-right strands of conservatism.
Eight days of sparring and cries of fraud by Cope and Fillon have shocked France and are fast undermining the credibility of a party that has its roots in the post-war Gaullist conservative movement and ruled for a decade until losing power in May.
The debacle, described by conservative daily Le Figaro this week as "a pitiful spectacle," could carry on unresolved for days, providing some welcome distraction for Socialist President Francois Hollande as he grapples with a sickly economy and dismal approval ratings.
Even Hollande's party has pleaded for an end to the row, though, saying a government needs a functional opposition.
The row over finding a successor to Sarkozy has exposed a deep rift between followers of Fillon, a popular and urbane former prime minister, and Cope, a disciple of Sarkozy with more hardline views on immigration and religion.
The scale of the row reflects the fact that the position of UMP leader is normally a springboard for the party's presidential nomination. France next goes to the polls in 2017.
"The time has come to turn the page," Cope told France Info radio, appealing to members of Fillon's camp not to join his splinter group. "There was a vote and there is a result which has now been confirmed twice. We must now look to the future."
Cope made his first formal outing as UMP leader when he attended a meeting with Hollande, postponed from Monday due to the UMP crisis, over upcoming institutional changes.
HAUNTED BY DOUBTS
Fillon did not say whether he would pursue a legal challenge he has mounted to the naming of Cope as its leader, seeming to take a new tack with his plan to press for a new vote.
UMP lawmaker Eric Ciotti told reporters that more than 50 party members were expected to join Fillon's group, which sets out to be a subset of the UMP. He declined to say whether they could opt to break away from the UMP if Cope refuses a new vote.
Fillon's call for a new vote followed a meeting on Monday with Sarkozy, who UMP co-founder Alain Juppe, a former prime minister, begged to step in and help after his own attempt at mediation failed.
French media said Sarkozy favoured holding a new round of voting, despite the fact Cope is an ally who has promised to stand aside in 2017 were Sarkozy to seek to make a comeback.
Various other officials in the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) say holding a new voting round may now be the only solution to the crisis.
"Party militants must use their voices to save the UMP. If not we'll always be haunted by doubts," Ciotti told France 2 TV.
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