PARIS A botched election that hoisted Jean-Francois Cope to the head of France's main conservative party has left it bitterly divided and without a clear presidential candidate for 2017, opening a window for a comeback by ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Cope, who stands on the right of the opposition party, beat moderate ex-prime minister Francois Fillon by a razor-thin margin of 98 votes out of 175,000 after more than 24 hours of bickering over the count and accusations of ballot-stuffing.
The disputed victory unleashed a war of words between factions, raising fears of a possible break-up, or another long-running feud of the kind that has repeated weakened the French right over the past three decades.
While Cope, 48, will now lead the party for three years, hostility in Fillon's camp may deprive him of full support for a 2017 presidential bid and fuel a longing for a figure who stayed aloof from the squabbling: Sarkozy.
"There could scarcely have been a better outcome for Sarkozy," said Jerome Fourquet, an analyst at pollster IFOP. "Cope has a legitimacy problem and Fillon is out of the race, which removes any serious block to his returning in 2017."
However, Sarkozy lost to Socialist President Hollande in May chiefly because of a widespread rejection of his hyperactive, aggressive personality. Those feelings have subsided since he withdrew from active politics, but they could return.
The outcome could also lift Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front ahead of municipal and European elections in 2014 as voters who warmed to Cope's hard line on immigration and religion but were put off by the vote debacle rally to her camp.
The battle for the UMP leadership was so bitter largely because the role offers the winner a media spotlight and control over France's biggest party machine.
Sarkozy used his own time as UMP leader as a ramp for his presidential bid against Socialist Segolene Royal in 2007, honing his political programme and patronage network while marking his differences from predecessor Jacques Chirac.
Cope, a lawyer and Sarkozy ally who is also known as an indefatigable political fighter, harbours similar ambitions and has tapped a new generation of activists with a tough discourse on immigration and against public displays of Islam.
Yet he lacks the momentum Sarkozy enjoyed in 2007 as well as his record in office, and has said he would step aside if his mentor decided to run again in 2017.
"Whatever he decides, I will stand by Nicolas Sarkozy," Cope told BFM TV in September, although some analysts question whether he would willingly hand back the party keys to Sarkozy.
A recent headline in Le Point magazine summed up the feeling among many UMP supporters. "Help, Sarkozy - come back!" it read.
TIME TO HEAL WOUNDS
Fillon spurned Cope's early attempts to heal the damage caused by Sunday's election, decrying what he called a "political and moral fracture" in the party. He rejected an offer to make him vice president of the UMP and boycotted a meeting of party officials at parliament on Tuesday.
Such infighting was common before Chirac created the UMP to unify rival centre-right factions after far-right leader Jean-Marie le Pen's shock second place in a 2002 presidential election.
Some analysts said that without rapid reconciliation, the UMP risks breaking into a centre-right current loyal to Fillon - which polls show represents two-thirds of conservative voters - and a hard-right faction backing Cope.
But Fillon may need the UMP machine if he wants to run for mayor of Paris in 2014, since the political centre is cluttered with small, weak parties.
Even without a split, Cope will have to work hard to turn the UMP back into a strong opposition now that Hollande has set out a more ambitious economic reform agenda.
The National Front's Marine Le Pen said her party would reap gains from disenchantment among UMP supporters.
"This bolsters our position as the first opposition party in the country," she said. "Today I'm appealing to all disappointed UMP supporters to come and join us." (Reporting by Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Paul Taylor)