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Both candidates claim victory in French party election

Both candidates in France's conservative party election have claimed victory in a tightly contested affair. The winner will succeed former President Nikolas Sarkozy as party head.

Francois Fillon (pictured above) and Jean-Francois Cope each announced themselves as winner in an election late Sunday for the Union for a Popular Movement party (UMP).

Fillon, the moderate former prime minister, and Cope, the populist secretary general, hope to succeed Sarkozy as head of the 300,000-member party. Sarkozy lost the presidential election to the more liberal Francois Hollande six months ago.

"The majority of the UMP membership has spoken and elected me the head of the party," Cope told a group of supporters.

Cope announced he was approximately 1,000 votes ahead, while Fillon just 20 minutes later said he had a more than 200-vote advantage.

The uncertainty over the results fueled concerns of electoral fraud from both sides.

Fillon said that he did not want the election to be "stolen" and that the party's internal voting commission must provide the official results.

Fillon, 58, was favored over the 48-year-old Cope heading into the election, having served as a minister, mayor and regional president during his 31-year political career.

Both candidates oppose a government bill to legalize gay marriage, and say they do not support Hollande's proposal to allow residence permit-holding foreigners to vote in local elections.

The candidate that becomes head of the UMP can run against Hollande in 2017, but Sarkozy may make another attempt himself.

dr/mr (dpa, Reuters)