* Fillon says dropping party presidency bid
* Threatens to file a lawsuit over disputed result
* Fillon says overseas votes not counted
By Nicholas Vinocur
PARIS, Nov 21 Former French premier Francois
Fillon contested results of his party's leadership race on
Wednesday, plunging conservatives deeper into turmoil just hours
after the winner said rival factions had been reconciled.
Fillon, defeated by the more hardline Jean-Francois Cope by
a razor-thin margin, said an internal election committee had
omitted to count votes from three overseas districts which would
have tipped the result in his favour.
Furious at being beaten by a more junior rival for a post
that will be a launchpad for the 2017 presidential race - Fillon
s a id he was dropping his bid to lead the UMP and would not rule
out challenging the results in court.
"The UMP can not be built on a lie," he said on TF1
television, calling for Alain Juppe, a party veteran and
ex-prime minister, to take the reins while the party seeks a way
out of the impasse.
Juppe said, however, he would only do so on condition the
two sides agreed to work together, which was not yet the case.
The disarray among the conservatives is providing welcome
relief to Socialist President Francois Hollande and his
government, which has been plagued by gaffes and a ratings
plunge. Moody's downgraded French debt by one notch to Aa1 from
triple-A on Monday.
Fillon's camp said he would have won by 26 votes with those
extra ballots counted. As the result stands, Cope was named the
centre-right UMP's new leader with lead of 98 votes out of
Sunday's contest was already held up by accusations of
ballot-stuffing by both candidates.
Fillon does not plan to lodge an official appeal against the
results but wants the election committee which ruled in favour
of Cope on Monday to reverse its decision. The committee says it
cannot go back on a decision approved by both parties.
The fresh flare-up came after Cope had told a news
conference he and his rival had patched up their differences in
a cordial telephone chat on Wednesday morning, and both had
pledged their commitment to uniting the party.
The feuding over the result looked set to deepen the
antipathy between supporters of Cope and Fillon, raising the
prospect of a lengthy crisis that could distract the UMP for
months from its role as the main opposition party.
Cope has insisted he is the rightful leader of the party and
challenged his rival to lodge an official complaint.
"We'll go to an appeals commission if we have to go to an
appeals commission, and then we will look much more closely what
happened in Nice," he said, referring to accusations of
ballot-stuffing by Fillon's camp in the southern port city.
Cope, a disciple of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, was
declared the winner of Sunday's vote late on Monday evening
after more than 24 hours of bickering over who had won.
Fillon's campaign director, Eric Ciotti, said on Wednesday
the head of the party committee which decided Monday's result
told Fillon that more than 1,000 votes from party members based
abroad had not been counted.
Sarkozy - whose chances of staging a comeback for 2017 will
be boosted if the infighting continues - has taken pains to stay
well away from the UMP debacle, slipping past journalists at a
corporate event in London where he was a keynote speaker without
making any comment.