PARIS – Former President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative party is holding emergency meetings Sunday to try to figure out who's in charge, after a disputed election for its new leader that could reshape French politics.
After a decade at the helm of one of the world's leading economies, the Union for a Popular Movement party is now in shambles and may fall apart altogether.
Central to the troubles is a debate among conservatives over immigration and Islam in France. The election a week ago split party members into those leaning toward the anti-immigrant far right, represented by Jean-Francois Cope, and those hewing to more centrist views, supporting Francois Fillon.
Cope, who led France's push to ban face-covering Islamic veils, was initially declared winner. But uncounted votes were then discovered that could swing the vote in Fillon's favor.
A UMP commission that handles vote disputes convened Sunday morning to discuss what to do. Then Fillon's team, arguing that the commission was weighted in Cope's favor, suspended its involvement around midday, the Sipa news agency reported.
Hopes focused on Sunday evening, when former Prime Minister Alain Juppe is to meet with both candidates to try to mediate a solution.
Juppe knows his task is nearly insurmountable.
Speaking on Europe-1 radio Sunday, he said he is hoping to "cultivate a small flame of hope," though admitted "I have very few chances" of success.
"If this evening, Jean-Francois Cope and Francois Fillon do not accept what I propose ... I have no ability to impose it," he admitted.
Both Cope and Fillon want to lead opposition to Socialist President Francois Hollande — and run for president themselves in 2017. Since Sarkozy left office in May, France's presidency, parliament and most regional governments have all been under Socialist control.
France's politics weigh on Europe's direction, too. Hollande's Socialists have pushed against austerity plans for indebted countries that use the shared euro currency, and battled Britain over cutbacks in the European Union budget.
France's far right National Front is hoping to capitalize on the UMP's troubles and bring in new support from the more hard-right members of the conservative party. Meanwhile a new centrist party, UDI, has already reaped benefits from the drama, winning new members over the past week amid increasing disillusion with the divided UMP.
At the same time nostalgia for Sarkozy is on the rise, with many conservatives hoping he returns to politics — even though the former leader was named special witness in an investigation last week involving alleged illegal party financing that could see him face charges.