* UMP rivals in vicious dispute over leadership contest
* Crisis threatens to tear conservative party apart
* Sarkozy due to meet his former PM Fillon
PARIS, Nov 26 A co-founder of France's
opposition conservative party begged former President Nicolas
Sarkozy on Monday to step in and save it from implosion after
talks failed to settle a vicious dispute over who won last
weekend's leadership contest.
Alain Juppe, a former prime minister and veteran of the
centre-right, abandoned his bid to mediate in the week-long
crisis after a fruitless meeting on Sunday with warring UMP
rivals Jean-Francois Cope and Francois Fillon.
Fillon is mounting a legal challenge to Cope's razor-thin
victory and the row threatens to tear apart a party whose
mission when it was founded a decade ago was to tie together the
centrist and harder right factions the two rivals stand for.
Sarkozy - widely seen as considering a comeback for the 2017
presidential election despite vowing to quit politics when he
lost power in May - was to meet Fillon, his former prime
minister, for lunch on Monday to discuss the crisis.
"It seems clear that (Sarkozy) is the only person today with
enough authority to propose a solution where I cannot see one,"
Juppe told RTL radio. "It's in his hands."
Former interior minister Claude Gueant, stressing that a
court battle would be the worst possible route for the party,
said Sarkozy could make a statement later in the day.
The botched contest to find a successor to Sarkozy has made
a laughing stock of a party that held the presidency for 10
years until Francois Hollande's May election win. It is also a
boon for the Socialist president as he grapples with a
flatlining economy and slumping approval ratings.
The debacle has exposed a deep split over the party's
gradual shift to the right on issues such as immigration and
religion that could now reshape the political landscape.
At worst, analysts predict a break-up of a party that former
President Jacques Chirac founded to keep the right on a centrist
path set by General Charles de Gaulle after World War Two.
Even if the party can hold together, the feud risks
distracting the UMP for months from its role as the main
opposition party, benefiting both the left and the far-right
ahead of local elections in 2014.
"It is hard to see how the UMP continues as a party after
this," Arthur Goldhammer, an expert at the Centre for European
Studies at Harvard University, wrote in his French politics
blog. "Clearly this is a saga that will not play out in a day."
Hollande was due to meet Cope, as UMP leader, on Monday to
discuss institutional changes but the meeting was postponed
after Cope rejected Juppe's suggestion of forming a new, more
neutral, committee to determine the result of the Nov. 18 vote.
The UMP appeals committee was due to give its latest verdict
on Monday or Tuesday on the vote, which Cope says he won by 98
votes out of nearly 175,000 cast. Fillon says he would have won
by 26 votes had about 1,000 overseas ballots not been excluded.
Juppe said it was possible the party could hold a fresh
leadership vote, an idea backed by 71 percent of the French
public according to an opinion poll published in the weekly
Journal du Dimanche on Sunday. Cope said the idea made no sense.
A close ally of Sarkozy who has said he would put his own
presidential ambitions on hold should his mentor decide to make
a comeback, Cope also said he believed Sarkozy had "no intention
of interfering" in the leadership contest.