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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 early on Monday, 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 followed several hours during which both camps claimed there had been irregularities in the voting process.
Fillon said he was waiting for the official results of the contest from the internal voting commission, adding that "the credibility of the right and the centre" was at stake.
"We don't have the right to proclaim results before those whose responsibility it is have even done so," Fillon said.
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.
Cope said the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) party had clearly shown its will to fight Hollande's policies, which he said were "dangerous for our country" on an economic, social and fiscal level, with reforms that would divide France.
The contest to lead the party, six months after Sarkozy lost power to the Socialists, is key to determining whether the UMP will hold to the centre or move to the right in a quest to regain power in 2017.
Sarkozy's defeat marked the end of 17 years in power for the right, and the UMP lost the Senate, the presidency and the lower house within months of each other. Yet two-thirds of UMP members want Sarkozy to return as a presidential candidate in five years.
Unlike Fillon, a motor-racing fan who is ready to run for the 2017 presidency, Cope has said he would stand aside if Sarkozy decides to make a comeback.
Cope is seen as a more polarising figure, playing to the nearly one-in-five people who voted for the far-right National Front in the first election round in May, betting that rampant unemployment would keep tensions high over immigration.
The mayor of a town near Paris alleged recently that city suburbs brim with "anti-white" racism. He irked many inside his party by making much of an incident in which a boy had his chocolate pastry snatched from him by Muslim youths during the Ramadan fasting period.
Cope played a central role in Sarkozy's banning of the full-face Islamic veil and aims to appease those who find Muslim customs invasive in secular and traditionally Catholic France.
Fillon appeals more to centre-ground voters disillusioned with Hollande's left-wing policies, such as tax hikes on high-earners.
The gulf between them reflects a split in a party founded by former President Jacques Chirac in 2002 to group several centre-right parties and carry on the legacy of post-war leader Charles de Gaulle, who sought to transcend the left-right rift.
Hollande has a clear majority in parliament and controls most French regions, but a steady slump in his ratings is giving the right an audience. The latest Ifop poll on Sunday showed a 41 percent approval rating.
Whichever direction the UMP takes will be tested in early 2014 in local elections where Hollande risks losing ground, barring an economic rebound.
Right-wing ideology aside, Cope and Fillon have similar views on economic policy and Europe, and have been critical of Hollande's challenge to Berlin's focus on austerity.
Sarkozy, praised for his handling of the financial crisis, has told friends he would seek re-election if the Socialists mishandle economic policy.
(Reporting by James Regan and Sophie Louet. Writing by James Regan and Catherine Bremer.; Editing by Stephen Powell and Christopher Wilson)
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