Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy met with former prime minister Francois Fillon in Paris on Monday to discuss the UMP party's crisis. (BENOIT TESSIER/REUTERS)

France’s conservative opposition has exploded in a divisive and invective-laden struggle — disenchanted commentators have called it a “vaudeville act” — over who will replace former president Nicolas Sarkozy as the standard-bearer of right-wing forces arrayed against the ruling Socialists.

The contested leadership election, more than a week old and mired in dispute, has been particularly bitter because it will determine not only who leads the party in the post-Sarkozy era but also, to a large degree, what direction France’s conservative forces take in their campaign to return to power over the next five years.

“Beyond the quarrel over ballots, the right wing is fractured over essential things,” commentator Bruno Jeudy wrote in the Journal du Dimanche. “Its swing to the right has divided it. This is proof that Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat, whose causes nobody on the right wants to analyze, has caused much more damage than the party’s leaders admit.”

The battle — between former prime minister Francois Fillon and the current party chief, Jean-Francois Cope — is ostensibly over leadership of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), the conservative alliance that Sarkozy relied on when he was president, from 2007 until his defeat in May by Francois Hollande. But beyond that, Fillon and Cope are arm-wrestling over who will be best placed to become the right’s presidential candidate against Hollande in 2017, a job Sarkozy has said he does not want.

A party appeals board ruled Monday that despite instances of cheating at a number of polling places during the Nov. 18 vote, Cope was elected by 952 ballots, and it confirmed him as the UMP leader. Cope hailed the decision and called on all party members to rally around him. But Fillon spokesman Jerome Chartier immediately rejected the ruling as “fake” and said Fillon would not recognize it.

The former prime minister summoned his supporters to a meeting Tuesday to decide what course to follow, suggesting that he might pursue the party in court or lead a breakaway political movement that would seek to replace Cope’s organization as the main conservative party.

Fillon and Cope have been personal enemies and political rivals for years. They represent distinct currents in the broad conservative alliance that has evolved from what was once called neo-Gaullism.

With his strong personality, Sarkozy dominated the party, muffling the Cope-Fillon competition. But in his failed reelection campaign, he steered the group toward a more conservative stand on immigration, one of the main political issues in France, to a degree that made Fillon uncomfortable.

Fillon, 58, son of a well-to-do provincial notary, is a gentlemanly sports-car fan who comes from the Gaullist tradition of conservative values but liberal welfare and immigration policies. Cope, 48, son of an immigrant proctologist who fled anti-Semitism in Romania, is a right-wing scrapper in the Sarkozy image who, even though he is married to a Muslim, does not shrink from anti-immigrant and anti-Arab appeals to gain votes on the right edge of the right.

Against that background, Fillon immediately challenged the bungled Nov. 18 vote, charging that with Cope at the controls, the party was being run like a “mafia.” Returning the favor, Cope called Fillon a “sore loser” unable to accept defeat in a vote by party activists, even though he had been favored in opinion polls.

Former foreign minister Alain Juppe, who helped create the party, said Sarkozy is the only one with enough authority to force a compromise in Fillon and Cope’s fight and repair the badly fissured movement.

But to do so, the former president would have to abandon a pledge to stay above the political fray after his defeat.

“Can Nicolas Sarkozy calm things down and push the parties to return to the table to discuss a solution?” Juppe asked in a radio broadcast Monday. “It’s up to him.”

Although the election was marred by irregularities, Cope declared himself a narrow winner even before the vote-counters finished their tallies. Shortly afterward, Fillon said an honest count would show that he was the winner; he demanded a station-by-station recount.

The next day, the party’s election commission acknowledged that it had not taken into account three overseas territories whose votes were said to give Fillon the advantage. At that point, Cope turned to the appeals panel, which is provided for in party by-laws. But Fillon said the panel was made up of Cope cronies and could not be trusted to rule impartially.