A pedestrian walks by the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) headquarters in Paris on Nov. 19, 2012. (IAN LANGSDON/EPA)

PARIS — Just as it was lining up François Hollande, the struggling socialist president, in its sights, France’s conservative opposition has turned the gun around and shot itself spectacularly in the foot.

The chaotic scenes on Sunday night, when the two candidates to succeed Nicolas Sarkozy as leader of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) both declared victory and exchanged angry claims of ballot-rigging, stunned the watching television audience and left many questioning whether the party was on the point of disintegration.

“I am sounding a real alarm call,” said Alain Juppé, a former prime minister and one of founders of the party. “The very existence of the UMP is at risk today — we must stop this confrontation.”

On Monday, Jean-François Copé, the party’s current senior administrator, continued to claim an against-the-odds victory over François Fillon, Sarkozy’s prime minister for five years, in the vote among UMP members for the post of party president.

Fillon insisted he held a narrow lead — by a couple of hundred votes. The party’s electoral commission was poring over the returns to try to determine the winner — and assess the mutual accusations of cheating.

But whatever the outcome, the election has proved an unforeseen disaster for the UMP. Apart from the election-night conduct of the two candidates and their supporters, which did neither any favors, it highlighted the deep divisions within the party.

The UMP was stitched together a decade ago to create a broad right-of-center movement, encompassing Gaullists, liberals, the hard right and the center. It held power until Sarkozy was defeated by Hollande in May.

“Ten years after its creation, [the party] is confronting the risk of explosion,” Dominique Reynié, head of the Fondapol think-tank, told Le Monde. “This vote delivered none of the solid base it was supposed to.”

Instead, the election revealed a party split down the middle between those backing Copé’s call for an “unashamed” and aggressive swing to the right, and Fillon’s appeal to guard the center ground.

An immediate beneficiary of the near civil war appeared to be the National Front, the far-right party that, under the leadership of the charismatic Marine Le Pen, plans to exploit the splits in the UMP.

“We are watching, live, the UMP crashing,” said Florian Philippot, the NF’s top strategist, on Sunday night. “It’s a scenario that is not bad for us,” remarked Louis Aliot, another senior party official.

Reynié echoed a recent warning by François Baroin, a Fillon supporter and former finance minister, that if it persisted in tacking to the right in a bid to neutralize the NF, as Sarkozy did during the presidential election, the UMP risked alienating key constituencies such as ethnic minorities, as happened to the Republican Party in this month’s U.S. presidential election.

“The same blindness threatens the French right,” Reynié said.

In the meantime, the implosion of the UMP is welcome relief for Hollande and his government as they wrestle with a deep economic crisis — and mounting disquiet within left-wing ranks over their tough budget policies and recent concessions to business.

Hollande’s personal approval ratings have tumbled to about 35 percent, making him a vulnerable target had a new UMP leader won a firm mandate to lead the attack against him.

Many commentators singled out another “winner”: Nicolas Sarkozy. Polls show a sizeable majority of UMP supporters want the former president to return to the political frontline, at least in time for the next presidential election in 2017. By default, Sunday’s debacle unquestionably burnished his credentials should he choose to do so.

— Financial Times