Poll shows Israel’s Netanyahu romping in election

A new poll shows Israeli prime minister’s hardline Likud Party handily winning the Jan. 22 elections despite the entry of a dovish new party into the race.

The Dialog poll gives Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud 39 of parliament’s 120 seats, days after the party elected a slate of candidates that is more hawkish than the previous one.

It gives seven seats to the new party of former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the onetime chief negotiator with the Palestinians. Livni, who casts herself as an alternative to Netanyahu in the vote, took those seats away from other centrist parties, not Likud.

The poll, published Wednesday, shows Likud and its traditional right-wing and religious partners capturing 69 seats.

The survey of 514 respondents had a margin of error of 4.2 percent.

Source: AP


France to back Palestinian bid for UN status

France has confirmed it intends to vote for Palestinian non-member status at the United Nations later this week.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France had long backed Palestinian ambitions for statehood and would vote yes “out of a concern for coherency”.

The Palestinians are asking the UN General Assembly to upgrade their status from permanent observer to a “non-member observer state”.

The vote is due to take place later this week.

“This Thursday or Friday, when the question is asked, France will vote yes,” Mr Fabius told the lower house of parliament.

‘Unilateral steps’

France – a permanent member of the UN Security Council – is the first major European country to come out in favour of the move.

An upgrade in status would allow the Palestinians to participate in General Assembly debates and improve their chances of joining UN agencies and the International Criminal Court (ICC), although the process would be neither automatic nor guaranteed.

It follows a 2011 bid by Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and chairman of the PLO, to join the UN as a full member state, which failed because of a lack of support in the Security Council.

Israel has warned that non-member status for the Palestinians at the United Nations would breach the 1993 Oslo peace accords, under which the Palestinian Authority was established.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Lior Ben Dor told the BBC earlier this month that Israel was concerned that if Palestine became a UN non-member state, it could ask the International Criminal Court (ICC) to resolve disputes with Israel.

If that were the case, he said, Israel would “take unilateral steps to protect its interests”, but did not elaborate on what those measures would be.

President Abbas has said he does not “want any confrontations with the United States or Israel”, adding: “If we can start a dialogue or negotiations the day after the [UN] vote, we will.”

Source: BBC


Israeli Defence minister Ehud Barak quits politics

The Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, has announced he will quit politics after the general election next January.

Mr Barak was Israel’s prime minister between 1999 and 2001.

It brings an end to a long career in Israel’s military and political establishment.

He served in the Israel Defense Forces for 39 years, rising to become the Chief of General Staff.

He then served as the country’s Interior Minister, Foreign Minister, Prime Minister and Defence Minister.

He defeated Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1999 general election on a manifesto which include the promise to withdraw from southern Lebanon.

Source: BBC


Independence drive falters for Spain’s Catalonia

Voters in Spain’s Catalonia region favored the right to decide on possible independence but split their ballots between fractious parties, making the prospect of secession less likely than ever.

Artur Mas, leader of the northeastern region’s ruling center-right coalition, had sought an absolute majority in Sunday’s vote to get a mandate for an independence referendum that the central government says would be unconstitutional. But his Convergence and Union party lost seats while another rival, the pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia, made big gains.

Mas is expected to take weeks to try to cobble together a coalition majority. Spain’s central government in Madrid predicted Monday that the result will mark the end of a secession vote drive that has distracted authorities who are trying to prevent Spain from being forced into a bailout.

While the two Catalonian parties share the goal of holding the referendum, they are far apart on almost everything else and analysts said it would be very difficult for them to form an alliance.

“They agree on the issue of the right to decide the future of the Catalan people, but on economic issues they have opposite positions,” said Carlos Berrera, a communications professor at the University of Navarra.

In power for the past two years, Convergence and Union has introduced painful austerity cuts in Catalonia that have been vigorously opposed by Republican Left.

Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people that includes Spain’s second-largest city of Barcelona, is one of the areas suffering the most in the country’s four-year-old economic crisis, which has left unemployment at 25 percent.

Catalonia is responsible for around a fifth of Spain’s economic output and many residents complain that the central government in Madrid takes in more tax money from the region than it gives back. But now Catalonia is the most indebted region in Spain and has had to seek a €5.4 billion bailout from Madrid.

The central Spanish government, which fiercely opposes the idea of an independence referendum, was quick to praise the vote.

Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo called the outcome “a good result for Catalonia, Spain and Europe, though not for Convergence and Union.”

Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria described the election as “a serious blow for Mas” but one that “put the priorities in order.”

“Voters want governments focusing on the crisis and creating jobs,” she added.

In all, the ruling party in Catalonia lost 12 seats, going down to 50 seats in the 135-seat regional legislature, with the Republican Left coming in second with 21 seats. Five other parties split the remainder, with most of those seats going to parties opposed to independence.

Mas did not immediately outline Monday how he will try to form a government. Republican Left leader Oriol Junqueras said voters had issued a “mandate to hold a referendum” but he ruled out forming a coalition with Convergence and Union.

Junqueras said his party would continue to demand that Mas’ government change its austerity policies, calling for lower taxes for most and for banks and the rich to shoulder more costs. But he didn’t rule out working with Mas on specific issues.

Jordi Matas, a political science professor at the University of Barcelona, said Mas might try to seek a limited deal with the Republican Left only on the referendum and other issues that falls short of a coalition.

While pro-referendum parties won a majority in the vote, Matas said the result of a hypothetical referendum is too hard to predict.

Mas’ only other options for coalition partners are the center-right Popular Party or the center-left Socialist Party — but he would have to drop his push for a secession referendum because both vigorously oppose such a vote.

The outcome of Sunday’s vote produced such a political stalemate that it’s impossible to predict whether a renewed drive for a secession referendum would work, said Angel Rivero Rodriguez, a political science professor at Madrid’s Autonomous University.

“Right now we are not sure about the state of the Catalan independence process,” he said. “We don’t know if this new situation is going to accelerate the process or hide it again indefinitely.”

Catalonia has had a long history separatist sentiment, especially since its own language and cultural traditions were harshly repressed by Gen. Francisco Franco’s military dictatorship from the end of Spain’s Civil War in 1939 until his death in 1975.

This fall, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy refused to ease Catalonia’s tax load, prompting some 1.5 million people to turn out in Barcelona in September for the largest Catalonian nationalist rally since the 1970s.

Source: AP


France’s Sarkozy questioned over campaign funds

Nicolas Sarkozy faces the possibility of charges on allegations he took advantage of an aging heiress to get envelopes stuffed with illegal cash for his presidential campaign. His party is mired in an internal feud. And still France’s conservatives see Nicolas Sarkozy as their best hope to return to power.

It’s a sign of how polarizing the former president is for the French: Many were suspicious of his close ties to the wealthy and threw him out of office; supporters see him as the only person able to save the country’s economy and wish he’d return. On Thursday, the former president was named a key — and potentially indictable — witness after 12 hours before a judge to answer questions about whether he accepted illegal campaign donations from the 90-year-old L’Oreal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt.

Bettencourt’s former accountant told police she handed over €150,000 ($192,000) in cash she was told would be passed on to Sarkozy’s campaign treasurer. In July, a magistrate ordered the seizure of Sarkozy’s diaries, including his calendars.

The sum, although it pales in comparison to U.S. campaign funding amounts, shocked many French citizens because spending on political campaigns is tightly limited here. Individual campaign contributions to candidates are limited to €4,600 ($5,930), and no candidate can spend more than €22 million ($28 million) on an entire presidential campaign.

By comparison, an estimated total of $4 billion (€3 billion) was spent on campaigning for this year’s U.S. presidential elections, and in the final months of the campaign each candidate was pulling in upward of $100 million (€77 million).

The investigation that has ensnared Sarkozy centers on the finances of Bettencourt, Europe’s richest woman and the focus of a long-running family feud over her fortune. Bettencourt, who was reported to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, has since been placed under legal protection.

Sarkozy’s election loss in May cost him his immunity from prosecution. By July, his offices had been raided. The Bordeaux prosecutor, Claude Lapland, told the Sipa news agency after Thursday’s hearing that Sarkozy was given the status of what in France is known as an “assisting witness,” with the possibility of facing charges later on allegations of abusing someone in an impaired state, swindling and abuse of confidence.

“Given the extremely strict rules and controls, illegal financing is completely impossible,” said Claude Gueant, who was Sarkozy’s campaign director at the time, chief of staff and later his interior minister.

Sarkozy entered the Bordeaux courthouse Thursday without notice after a decoy vehicle lured away the cameras hoping to catch him on the way in, according to the Sipa news agency. He and his lawyer met privately with investigating judges, who handed Sarkozy the special witness status.

They stopped short of filing preliminary charges, as some had expected, and his lawyer Thierry Herzog called the decision a “victory” for the former president. The status is somewhere between a simple witness and a formal suspect.

Herzog tried to tamp down interest in the case, saying on RTL radio Thursday night that the affair “no longer exists.”

Sarkozy ally Patrick Balkany, a legislator and mayor, said on BFM television that he spoke to the ex-president after the hearing and “he was content.”

Bettencourt’s money was contested long before Sarkozy entered the picture. Her daughter accused a celebrity photographer of abusing her mother’s alleged mental frailty – and bilking the elder heiress out of €1 billion ($1.3 billion) in cash and artworks. The elder Bettencourt’s ex-butler leaked details of household conversations, including one in which the mother seems confused about whether or not she gave an island in the Seychelles to the photographer as a gift.

The island has since been sold off to a wildlife preservation organization. The photographer and an asset manager for Bettencourt face criminal charges of taking advantage of the L’Oreal heiress. And Bettencourt herself has been placed under legal protection of her relatives, including the daughter who first brought the case to light.

As the scandal grew, the French economy stalled, and French voters tossed Sarkozy and his conservative UMP party into the political wilderness. And now the internal vote to replace the ex-president as party leader has descended into bitter allegations of questionable vote counts, leaving the party in chaos.

A poll released Thursday showed that a majority among the conservative UMP party think Sarkozy would be the best presidential candidate for the 2017 elections — nearly double the percentages of those who backed the two men now wrestling for power.

The person mediating the party dispute is Alain Juppe, a former prime minister who was convicted in 2004 in an illegal party financing scheme and has since bounced back as a power broker in the conservative party.

Former President Jacques Chirac, another conservative caught in that same scandal, is the only French leader since World War II-era Nazi collaborator Marshal Philippe Petain to be charged or convicted of a crime.

Source: AP


South Korea mogul quits presidential bid, backs rival to challenge Park

South Korean software mogul Ahn Cheol-soo gave up on Friday his bid to become president and endorsed another opposition candidate, setting the stage for a close race with conservative favorite Park Geun-hye to lead Asia’s fourth largest economy.

Opinion polls had shown that Park, daughter of the country’s assassinated leader Park Chung-hee, would have easily the December 19 presidential election if the opposition had fielded two candidates and split the opposition vote.

But Ahn’s decision to step aside leaves Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer and the candidate of the left-of-center main opposition Democratic United Party, as Park’s main challenger.

“Moon Jae-in is the single candidate … send Moon Jae-in your support,” Ahn, who was running as an independent with a strong backing of urban and young professional voters, told a news conference.

South Korea’s economy and relations with North Korea are two of the main issues in the election to replace President Lee Myung-bak, who is serving a five-year term ending in February and can not run again.

Jae-in has pledged to resume unconditional aid to North Korea and to tighten regulation on big business.

Ahn and Moon had been trying to agree on a single candidate and avoid splitting the anti-Park vote but had failed during more than two weeks of bitter discussions to merge their campaigns.

Experts said Ahn’s decision to step aside would turn what had looked like an easy win for Park, who is trying to become the country’s first woman leader, into a very close race.

“This will have a powerful impact ahead and bring more votes to Moon in the two-way race,” said Ka Sang-joon, a political science professor at Dankook University in Seoul.

Moon, 59, has been under intense pressure from his party, which has 127 of the 300 seats in parliament and support from across the country, not to yield to Ahn.

Policy proposals from the two main candidates have been remarkably similar considering the differences in their political backgrounds and support bases.

They are both courting a large block of voters who feel their voice has not been heard under the pro-business government of incumbent Lee.

Source: Reuters


In final days, Mexico’s president tries again to get the ‘United States’ out of ‘Mexico’

Mexico’s president is making one last attempt to get the “United States” out of Mexico — at least as far as the country’s name is concerned.

The name “United Mexican States,” or “Estados Unidos Mexicanos,” was adopted in 1824 after independence from Spain in imitation of Mexico’s democratic northern neighbour, but it is rarely used except on official documents, money and other government material.

Still, President Felipe Calderon called a news conference Thursday to announce that he wants to make the name simply “Mexico.” His country doesn’t need to copy anyone, he said.

Calderon first proposed the name change as a congressman in 2003 but the bill did not make it to a vote. The new constitutional reform he proposed would have to be approved by both houses of Congress and a majority of Mexico’s 31 state legislatures.

However, Calderon leaves office on Dec. 1, raising the question of whether his proposal is a largely symbolic gesture. His proposal was widely mocked on Twitter as a ridiculous parting shot from a lame-duck president.

Calderon said that while the name change “doesn’t have the urgency of other reforms,” it should be seen as a relevant issue. “Mexico doesn’t need a name that emulates another country and that no one uses on a daily basis,” he said.

The United States looms larger than perhaps any other country in the Mexican cultural imagination: Mexicans follow U.S. sports teams, watch U.S. television shows and buy U.S.-made products. For many, however, there is also resentment of a larger and more powerful northern neighbour that’s often seen as ignoring or looking down its nose at Mexico.

Calderon has tried to keep Mexico’s international image, and its vital tourism industry, from being tarred by the waves of violence set off by his six-year, militarized offensive against drug cartels. At least 47,500 people have died in cartel-related violence during his term in office, although the number is believed to be far higher, since his administration stopped releasing an official count last year.

A poll released this week by the Vianovo consulting firm said that half of all Americans view Mexico unfavourably and more than 70 per cent believe it’s unsafe to travel south of the border. The poll of 1,000 adults had a margin of error of four percentage points.

“It’s time for Mexicans to return to the beauty and simplicity of the name of our country, Mexico,” Calderon said. “A name that we chant, that we sing, that makes us happy, that we identify with, that fills us with pride.”

Source: AP


Catalan independence debate hits cold realities

As in towns across this wealthy northwestern region, the maze-like cobblestone streets of Girona’s medieval quarter are fluttering with flags in favor of Catalonia’s independence. Here, however, there is also a smattering of flags bearing the slogan: “Catalonia, A New European State.”

It goes to the heart of a Catalan conundrum.

While the separatist dream of millions has never felt so close to becoming a reality, independence fervor is now coming up against the cold, hard facts of what breaking free would really mean. Few realize that this Spanish region famed for its trading prowess would be shut out of the European Union for years, a huge hurdle to doing business with its most important trading partners. EU officials say an independent Catalonia would face the same membership conditions of any other candidate nation.

Catalonia holds elections on Sunday that will be seen as a test of the regional government’s plans to hold a referendum on independence, and one of the key issues emerging is the theoretical place of a free Catalonia in Europe.

Polls suggest that many Catalans haven’t thought through the consequences of freedom.

A survey published by El Pais newspaper this month showed that while nearly half of Catalans support independence, the number drops to 37 percent if it means being out of the EU.

Tough membership conditions aren’t the only thing possibly standing in the way. The European Union’s treaty states that each of the 27 member states can veto a candidate nation’s accession, meaning that a vengeful Spain could block Catalonia from joining the club.

“Now we want to be a state inside Europe,” said Josep Matamala, who, along with friend Miquel Casals, created the banner that combines the slogan of EU aspiration with the red-and-yellow stripes, blue triangle and white star of the “estelada” flag that symbolizes Catalonia’s independence drive.

Catalonia’s regional president, Artur Mas, who is leading the independence charge and holding rallies bristling with European Union flags, has voiced optimism — perhaps mere wishful thinking — that an independent Catalonia would be swiftly embraced into the EU fold. In a recent speech in Brussels he declared: “Catalonia has never in its history let Europe down, now we trust Europe will not let us down.”

And there are pro-independence voters who simply can’t fathom being cast out of the EU.

“I imagine that if faced with a majority of Catalans who vote yes for independence in a referendum, (the EU) wouldn’t be able to turn its back on us,” said 35-year-old Girona music teacher Merce Escarra

Girona, one of Spain’s richest cities, is an example of what Catalans call “seny” — roughly the equivalent to “practical sense.” It typifies the Catalan character of being hardworking and businesslike. But these days, Girona, like the rest of Catalonia, is experiencing an outburst of “rauxa,” seny’s polar opposite, meaning “wild exuberance.” And the source of that is a separatist passion ignited by Spain’s ongoing economic crisis.

In 2010, Escarra featured in the local press when she was asked by the owner of the building where she lives to remove the “estelada” flag from her balcony. “I said I had a legitimate right to protest and left it up, and it has been there ever since,” she said.

Two years later it is difficult to find a building in Girona that isn’t bedecked with the red-and-yellow Catalan flag or the pro-independence “estelada.”

“Now there has been a boom in the pro-independence movement,” Escarra said. Her reasons for wanting independence are representative of millions of Catalans: The region pays more than it receives back in taxes; its infrastructure has been neglected by the central government; and independence would ensure the survival of the Catalan language.

The regional government calculates it contributes €16 billion ($21 billion) more than it gets back. Other wealthy regions in Spain also pay more, but many Catalans feel that infrastructure projects like the Mediterranean rail corridor are left unfunded, while Spain’s high-speed passenger train network is extended to its less industrialized regions.

In recent years, grassroots pro-independence groups have held unofficial referendums on independence in towns across Catalonia. This “fake-it-till-you-make-it” attitude has found an extreme expression in dozens of Catalan villages, which have declared themselves “free Catalan territories.”

But symbolism’s one thing, hard economics another.

While most of Catalonia’s business community is taking a wait-and-see attitude, Jose Manuel Lara, the president of media giant Planeta, said he would move his company from Barcelona to Spain if Catalonia went independent, in order to remain based in the EU.

Ramon Tremosa, a European parliament member from Mas’ pro-independence party, said that Catalonia’s fate would hinge on pressure being applied on Spain by other European powers and the multinational companies established in Catalonia, which would be anxious for a quick return to business as usual in the common market.

“I can’t imagine the 4,000 multinationals (in Catalonia) allowing themselves to be expelled from the EU, from the euro and the free movement of goods and capital, it’s not realistic,” Tremosa told The Associated Press. “Spain would not be able to stop it because it is heading toward a bailout.”

European law experts were uncertain about how quickly an independent Catalonia could join the EU. “It is unknown territory,” said Andreu Olesti, an international law and economics professor at the University of Barcelona.

Nicolas Zambrana, professor of international law at the University of Navarra, was pessimistic about Catalonia’s EU prospects.

“Spain would be in a good position to prevent Catalonia from returning to the EU,” he said.

Both the El Pais poll and a second poll published in Barcelona-based newspaper La Vanguardia indicate that Mas’ CiU party has lost steam and would not make significant gains in Sunday’s elections, putting into question whether Mas will be able to claim a mandate to push for a referendum. El Pais surveyed 2,500 people by telephone from Nov. 8 to Nov. 15. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 2.5 percent.

“I am not supporting independence because I feel it is waste of time. I have no hope it will change the social situation here,” said John MacKay, a 54-year-old teacher from Barcelona.

And the idea of a fledgling Catalan state left out in the European cold is giving some independence supporters second thoughts.

“It worries me,” said Monica Casares, a 41-year-old mother of two who lives just north of Barcelona. “Taking into account that we would face a Spanish boycott on Catalan products for sure, and that we would also have to pay more on exports, we would have a big problem.”

But Matamala insisted that the EU would soon come around to the benefits of embracing a rich and dynamic Catalonia.

“Who is going to kick us out of Europe?” said Matamala. “I can’t conceive of it.”

Source: AP


Kazakhstan in move to ban opposition parties and media

The Central Asian state of Kazakhstan has moved to ban two opposition movements critical of President Nursultan Nazarbayev and to close dozens of opposition media outlets for “propagating extremism”.

In a step the opposition denounced as an attack on dissent in the oil-exporting former Soviet republic, prosecutors linked their request to last month’s jailing of Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Alga! or “Forward!” party.

Kozlov was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years for trying to rally workers in a failed attempt to topple the government. After his trial, the United States accused Kazakhstan of using its justice system “to silence opposition voices”.

Nazarbayev, 72, has run Central Asia’s most successful economy and largest oil producer for more than two decades, tolerating little dissent in pursuit of market reforms and foreign investment that has exceeded $150 billion.

As well as leading Alga!, Kozlov, a fierce critic of Nazarbayev, was leader of the country’s unofficial Halyk Maidany, or People’s Front movement, which tried to unite groups with specific grievances against the government.

He was found guilty of colluding with fugitive anti-government billionaire Mukhtar Ablyazov and of orchestrating dissent among striking oilmen in the prelude to riots last December that killed 15 people and dented Kazakhstan’s reputation for stability.

Nurdaulet Suindikov, spokesman for the prosecutor-general’s office, on Wednesday accused the two opposition movements Kozlov led and various media outlets of “propagating extremism”.

“Kozlov’s sentence established that the activity of the unregistered Alga! and Halyk Maidany movements, as well as the activity of a number of mass media outlets, was extremist,” he said.

Suindikov said prosecutors in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, had asked a court to ban the two movements as well as the media outlets.

Reporters Without Borders said it was “appalled” by the prosecutor-general’s move and urged the Almaty court to reject a request it said would push Kazakhstan closer to the “ultra-authoritarian model” of neighbors Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

“If granted, pluralism would quite simply cease to exist in this country. The government is using the pretext of combating extremism to launch an unprecedented offensive against its critics,” the Paris-based media watchdog said in a statement.


Kazakhstan’s marginalized opposition enjoys little support among voters. The country has never held an election that Western monitors have deemed fair, but Nazarbayev is popular in the country of 17 million for presiding over relative stability.

Suindikov said prosecutors were seeking the closure of eight newspapers and 23 Internet sites that operated under the umbrella of the Respublika publisher, as well as the Vzglyad newspaper and its Internet sites.

Oksana Makushina, deputy editor-in-chief of the Golos Respubliki newspaper – part of the Respublika group – said her publication would try to get round any court order.

A photograph of a decapitated dog hangs in the paper’s Almaty offices, a reminder of a grisly delivery in 2002 after it published a series of articles alleging corruption.

“They may close the paper in legal form, but given the presence of the Internet, it is hard to do so in reality,” Makushina said. “We will continue fighting, unless we are put in a prison cell next to Kozlov.”

Mikhail Sizov, another leader of the Alga! party, said he believed Kozlov’s imprisonment for his part in the Zhanaozen riots was the beginning of a wider campaign to destroy the entire opposition movement in Kazakhstan.

“There is virtually an undeclared war going on between Mukhtar Ablyazov and Nursultan Nazarbayev,” Sizov told Reuters.

The satellite TV channel K+ and the Internet portal Stan-TV are among the other media outlets targeted by prosecutors. State television ran a documentary this week that identified Ablyazov as the financial backer of both channels.

Baurzhan Musirov, director of Stan Production, which runs the Stan.KZ portal, denied this.

The channel’s reporters were first on the scene when oil workers in overalls began kicking over speakers at an Independence Day concert in Zhanaozen on December 16 last year.

Musirov ranks Stan.KZ’s coverage of Zhanaozen, including the seven-month labor dispute that preceded the violence, as the portal’s most significant contribution to reporting on events in Kazakhstan. But he denied any allegiance to opposition groups.

“We raise questions and we look at different problems,” he said. “Those who watch our material see a picture that doesn’t exist everywhere.”

Ablyazov, meanwhile, has been on the run since February. He had been sentenced to 22 months in prison for contempt of court in Britain, where he had earlier received political asylum. His current whereabouts are unknown.

A theoretical physics graduate who built a fortune by snapping up banking and media assets in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed, Ablyazov has said he fell out with Nazarbayev after campaigning for a change of government.

He has failed to appear in a vast fraud case being heard in Britain, where his former bank, state-owned BTA, has brought nine charges against Ablyazov and his allies. In the same case, BTA has frozen assets worth around $6 billion.

Source: Reuters


Sarkozy ally to lead French right

The French conservative UMP party has chosen Jean-Francois Cope as its next leader after a tight election marred by claims of fraud and ballot-stuffing.

Mr Cope, an ally of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, won 50.03% of the vote, defeating ex-PM Francois Fillon, who polled 49.97%, by just 98 votes.

The final result was delayed for more than 24 hours.

Mr Cope, the UMP secretary general, is on the right of the party, while Mr Fillon is seen as more of a centrist.

Party grandees had urged the two candidates to end their war of words, warning that the UMP had been damaged.

Different visions

Mr Cope, 48, said he had telephoned Mr Fillon, 58, to ask him to join him at the heart of the UMP “because our opponents are on the left”.

“My hands and my arms are wide open,” he told supporters after the result was announced.

“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.”

Mr Fillon, speaking after his rival’s victory speech, mentioned “many irregularities” in the electoral process but stopped short of rejecting the result.

He also warned of a deepening split in the UMP.

“What strikes me is the rift at the heart of our political camp, a political and moral fracture,” he said.

Opinion polls had consistently given Mr Fillon the edge, but initial results on Sunday showed a narrow lead for Mr Cope.

The UMP held the presidency of France for 17 years, until May, when Socialist candidate Francois Hollande defeated Mr Sarkozy’s bid for a second term.

The two candidates have different visions for the party.

Mr Cope is considered more right-wing. Last month he produced “A Manifesto for an Uninhibited Right” in which he claimed that gangs in the city suburbs were fostering “anti-white racism”.

Mr Fillon is seen as sober and more restrained.

The winner will inherit a party in difficult financial straits, after a series of electoral setbacks over the past five years, culminating in Mr Sarkozy’s presidential defeat to Socialist rival Francois Hollande.

Source: BBC