PARIS: France's opposition UMP party voted Sunday for a successor to ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy in a race between his former prime minister Francois Fillon and Jean-Francois Cope, the party's populist secretary-general.
The vote comes six months after Sarkozy's presidential election defeat to Socialist Francois Hollande, who is now battling a slump in his popularity ratings largely over the parlous state of the French economy.
The UMP leader, who will be elected for three years, will be tasked with organising opposition to Hollande and containing the advance by the far-right National Front, which garnered 18 percent of the votes in the presidential election.
The cautious and staid Fillon, who was prime minister for five years until Sarkozy was ousted by Hollande in May, is leading the opinion polls and portraying himself as a unifier.
He is squaring off against Cope, a champion of the party's right flank.
The man closest to the hearts of UMP followers remains Sarkozy himself, according to an IFOP opinion poll which found that two-thirds hope he will make a comeback and run for the presidency in 2017.
Sarkozy has hinted he might do just that, but in his absence it is Fillon who is favourite to take a majority of the 300,000 votes of UMP members.
Supporters of Cope accused the Fillon camp of cheating in one of the biggest constituencies, the Alpes-Maritimes area, but this was vehemently denied by their rivals.
Polls closed at 1700 GMT but UMP voters still waiting in line were allowed to cast their ballots, including Fillon himself, who hailed the turnout but criticised the way the vote was being run.
Results are expected late Sunday.
The 58-year-old Fillon is conservative on economic issues but inclusive on social matters. He argues that Cope's bid to attract the five million French who voted for the National Front in the presidential election risks splitting the UMP.
Cope, 48, has taken up where Sarkozy left off, unabashed in his bid to woo voters from the National Front, whose historically strong score at the polls split the rightwing vote and torpedoed Sarkozy's re-election bid.
His rallies have focused on themes that Sarkozy relentlessly pushed, such as resistance to immigration and the growing number of Muslims in France, which has Europe's biggest Muslim community.
He last month published "A Manifesto for an Uninhibited Right", in which he argued that the poor immigrant suburbs of French cities had become havens of "anti-white racism".
Cope, whom critics dub "Sarkozy light" and who has promised to stand aside if his mentor seeks re-election in 2017, followed that up with a tweet about a boy who had his chocolate cake snatched from him by "thugs" who were apparently enforcing the Muslim Ramadan fast.
Cope's provocative rhetoric shocks many centre-minded UMP supporters, as did Sarkozy's before him.
Many of them believe the future of the UMP is much safer in the hands of the restrained and urbane Fillon, who shares Cope's views on economic policy and the European Union but who wants to steer the party more toward the centre.
"Some people think they can win France by taking all the turns to the right," Fillon, who remained popular while Sarkozy's prime minister even as his boss hit record lows in the polls, told a campaign rally on Monday.
"But I am convinced that it will be won by the right, by the centre, and even by the left," he said.
The UMP election battle comes as the popularity of Hollande's government tumbles in opinion polls as it struggles to rein in a huge budget deficit and deal with economic crisis.
Hollande's popularity ratings have fallen to an all-time low, with only 36 percent of the French expressing confidence in him in November, according to a TNS Sofres-Sopra poll for Le Figaro magazine.
His score in the six months after a presidential election is the lowest in years.
Hollande's predecessor Sarkozy was polling 57 percent support in 2007 six months into his presidency. The last president to score similar to Hollande in the popularity measure was Jacques Chirac, who tallied 37 percent in 1995.