Things really got interesting on the night of the election, when the results were a virtual tie and both candidates declared victory. On November 19, Copé was declared the official winner, by just 98 votes out of 176,608 ballots. (That is 50.28 percent to 49.72 percent.) Then, the next day, the party's electoral commission met to certify the results and realized that ballots from three overseas voting areas had never been sent in. The commission initially confirmed that those votes were enough to give Fillon an even more miniscule victory. On Nov. 21, the former prime minister declared that he was the real winner, by 26 votes.
But the UMP's Florida nightmare scenario was just getting started. The electoral commission accepted accusations of voter fraud against Fillon's supporters, and threw out results from the remote Pacific island territory of New Caledonia, as well as two areas in southeastern France, alleging cheating. This swung the election back to Copé by 962 votes.
By Nov. 20, Fillon and his supporters were widely highlighting the fact that Copé, as the acting UMP leader, chose the majority of the electoral commission members and that he had overseen preparations for the election -- or, to be clear, his own election. Fillon quickly asked a French court to seize all electoral data (a process that is unlikely to be prompt), and he called for an independent -- and legitimate -- UMP commission to examine the results on a party federation-by-federation basis. In the face of Copé's refusal, Fillon has formally created a UMP splinter group -- the Rally-UMP -- in parliament, with 68 members, including several high-profile former ministers.
While Copé has repeatedly refused any efforts that would formally undermine the official aspect of his conquest -- or for victory to be "stolen" from him -- he has pledged to reunify the party. Around himself, naturally. "My hands and my arms are open wide," he said the day after the vote, going as far as to offer Fillon the vice presidency of the party. The former prime minister's campaign director, Eric Ciotti, called the proposal "grotesque."
The war of words between the two sides has been getting increasingly catty. Speaking on Europe 1 radio station on November 21, Copé referred to Fillon as a "profoundly sore loser" who is leading an attempted "putsch." Fillon went one further that same night on the TF1 television channel, saying, "A political party is not a mafia." To which prominent Copé supporter and former justice minister, Rachida Dati, retorted the next afternoon: "The Mafiosi are those who break the rules."
The bitter tone may have peaked on November 26 when a prominent politician likened Copé to a Central African Republic president who declared himself emperor in a 1974 ceremony in which he dressed like Napoleon, before overseeing a regime that engaged in summary executions of its opponents. "We have, on one side, a man who acts a little like [Jean-Bedel] Bokassa did some years back," former UMP spokesman Dominique Paillé said on Radio France International. "That is to say, ‘I proclaim myself emperor, and therefore everything...is part of a show by my friends, to endorse my victory.'"
Amid promises of defamation suits and allegations of cheating, prominent conservatives are warning that rank-and-file UMP members will flee this mess, and they seem to be right. The recently created centrist coalition, known as the UDI -- led by former environment minister Jean-Louis Borloo -- received 4,500 party applications from UMP members last week alone, the party calculates. And while no credible numbers have yet been released, the typical winner whenever one of France's two mainstream political parties discredits itself is the far-right National Front.