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French far-right circles as conservatives split on TV

MYT 4:15:00 AM

PARIS (Reuters) - France's far-right National Front urged disillusioned centre-right voters to cross over to its "Navy Blue" patriotic grouping on Tuesday, as a divisive leadership feud in the mainstream conservative UMP opposition party deepened.

French UMP political party head and deputy Jean-Francois Cope (L) and Christian Jacob (R), head of the UMP political party group at the National Assembly, attend to the questions at the government session at the National Assembly in Paris December 4, 2012. REUTERS/Charles Platiau
French UMP political party head and deputy Jean-Francois Cope (L) and Christian Jacob (R), head of the UMP political party group at the National Assembly, attend to the questions at the government session at the National Assembly in Paris December 4, 2012. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

As the UMP split into rival political blocs during televised parliamentary questions for the first time, National Front leader Marine Le Pen was in a nearby room promoting a coalition she hopes will boost support for her party.

"This is a rally for action, not a think tank. This is about driving the machine to access power," Le Pen said.

The National Front won a parliamentary seat in June for the first time since the mid-1980s, and since the UMP descended into internal wrangling on November 18 Le Pen has boasted of receiving several hundred applications a day to join her party.

Membership cards for a political coalition she launched earlier this year to allow right-wingers of all stripes to rally to her cause without having to join her anti-immigrant party would be rolled out in January, she said.

Voter anger over what has become a farcical feud between moderate Francois Fillon and hardliner Jean-Francois Cope to lead the UMP may be reflected in upcoming parliamentary by-elections and in local elections in early 2014.

Just down the corridor from Le Pen's meeting, the UMP appeared at parliamentary question time with 72 breakaway lawmakers loyal to Fillon sitting in a cluster next to the 122 other UMP deputies, in defiance of Cope's naming as party leader.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault poked fun at the fractured party by starting his response to a question from the UMP's National Assembly leader Christian Jacob with: "Sir, president for the UMP - that is correct isn't it, or am I mistaken?"

For Wednesday's session, Fillon's group, whose initials are RUMP, is down to ask two questions and the UMP four.

"We cannot go on like this, it's not tenable politically," grumbled Henri Guaino, an ex-aide to former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

"We cannot have a leader who is contested by half of the party. And ... a party with two parliamentary groups. It's the ultimate in absurdity."

BICKERING

Le Pen told Radio Classique that voters were bound to punish the UMP: "Some will abstain and many will vote for National Front candidates because we seem today to be the only ones who can defend them and put up opposition to the government."

The National Front scored a surprise 18 percent in the first round of the presidential election in April and there are three by-elections for parliamentary seats coming up before year-end; the National Front may score well but not enough to win a seat.

Cope, a disciple of Sarkozy and his hard line on immigration, and Fillon, Sarkozy's more moderate former prime minister, met under a shroud of secrecy for a second day to try and resolve a two-week standoff.

The row has clouded the UMP's future and made a laughing stock of a party which held power for a decade until Socialist President Francois Hollande's victory in May.

Cope has twice been announced the official winner of a November 18 leadership contest, but both candidates have claimed victory and accused the other camp of vote-rigging.

Cope has offered to hold a new contest after local elections in 2014, but Fillon wants a fresh vote held within three months.

Aides could shed little light on progress in talks which party officials see running on for several days.

"They are not even speaking to their teams," a Cope aide told Reuters.

The pair briefly agreed last week to call a party referendum on whether to hold a new leadership vote, before bickering again over Fillon's formation of a breakaway group in parliament.

Sarkozy got his fingers burnt when he attempted to mediate last week, brokering a truce that lasted just a matter of hours.

The rift in the UMP, founded by Jacques Chirac in 2002 to glue together different right-wing groups, has worsened in recent days with a new faction of "non-aligned" conservatives joining forces and refusing to back either Cope or Fillon.

Bruno Le Maire, a former farm minister in the "non-aligned" faction, said party members needed a say in resolving the row.

"We need to make sure this crisis does not get decided by a little arrangement between friends," he told France Info radio.

(Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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