Rivals dispute leadership of France's conservatives

PARIS Sun Nov 18, 2012 6:55pm EST

1 of 3. French politician Jean-Francois Cope (C) claims victory in a close election vote to head the UMP political party during a news conference at their headquarters in Paris November 18, 2012. France's UMP party members voted on Sunday to select its leader between current Secretary-General Cope and former Prime Minister Francois Fillon. Both Cope and Fillon have claimed victory as leader of the UMP political party.

Credit: Reuters/Benoit Tessier

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PARIS (Reuters) - The result of a tightly fought two-way contest to choose the next leader of France's conservatives remained unclear on Sunday, with both sides claiming they had won.

Jean-Francois Cope, a disciple of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, announced his victory to reporters around 2230 GMT, only for former prime minister Francois Fillon to say 20 minutes later that he was in the lead.

Cope supporters said he was some 1,000 votes ahead, while Fillon said he had a lead of more than 200 votes.

The confusion came after several hours during which both camps claimed there had been irregularities in the voting process.

Fillon said he was waiting calmly for the official results of the contest from the internal voting commission.

Announcing his victory, Cope said he wanted to work hand in hand with Fillon to present a united opposition to President Francois Hollande's Socialists.

The result of the contest, which comes six months after Sarkozy lost power to the Socialists, is key to determining whether the UMP party will hold to the center or move to the right in a quest to regain power in 2017.

(Reporting by James Regan and Sophie Louet; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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