Jean-Francois Cope has claimed leadership of France's conservative party. The victory means he could run for president or stand aside should Nicolas Sarkozy choose to re-enter politics.
Cope, allied with former President Sarkozy and the incumbent leader of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), beat moderate former Prime Minister Francois Fillon 50.03 percent to 49.97 percent - by 98 votes of 175,000.
But the vote wasn't without its controversy. In his acceptance speech on Monday Cope called for unity within the French political right. "My hands and my arms are wide open," Cope said. "It is in that state of mind that I telephoned Francois Fillon this evening: It is in that state of mind that I asked him to join me."
It took the party almost 30 hours to announce the winner, allowing both candidates ample time to accuse one another of fraud. Fillon denounced voting irregularities in regions loyal to Cope and said the campaign had caused a schism in the center-right party.
"What strikes me is the rift at the heart of our political camp, a political and moral fracture," Fillon said in a speech, adding that he had chosen not to dispute the result.
Until Francois Hollande beat Sarkozy in May, the right controlled France's presidency for 17 years. The convention was seen as the chance to get the coalition back on track. Instead, political commentators warned that the UMP could collapse.
The leadership contest would normally decide the party's 2017 presidential candidate, but surveys indicate that two-thirds of members think Sarkozy has the best chance. The ex-president, still popular among UMP members, has not ruled out a rematch against Hollande.
Founded in 2002 by former President Jacques Chirac to merge center-right parties, the UMP has lost the presidency, parliament and most regions in recent elections. Many saw the vote as a referendum on Fillon's center ground, in keeping with the party's decades-old roots, or a move right under the combative Cope in a quest to regain power.
Cope made remarks about "anti-white racism" and an anecdote about a boy having his chocolate croissant snatched from him by "thugs" during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. The remarks were seen as an attempt to court former UMP supporters who have migrated to the far-right National Front.
Fillon accused him of wanting to take "all the right-wing turns." Cope was unapologetic, however, saying he represented an "uninhibited right."
mkg/ccp (Reuters, dpa)