UMP rivals Fillon and Cope called to face-to-face talks

Mission UMPossible: A picture posted by blogger TropicalBoy mocks the UMP scandal - (left to right) Fillon, Juppe & Cope Mission UMPossible: a satirical image circulating on French social media

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The two rivals in the disputed leadership contest for France's conservative opposition have been called to face-to-face talks.

Jean-Francois Cope officially won the UMP election on Sunday but Francois Fillon demanded a recount after it emerged 1,300 votes had been omitted.

UMP mediator Alain Juppe has asked the two to meet him by Sunday evening.

He also demanded an end to the name-calling which has marked the very public dispute.

Mr Fillon, who was prime minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy until his electoral defeat in May, has likened Mr Cope's allies to "a mafia" while his rival has described him as a "sore loser".

As a result, leftist French bloggers were mocking the UMP on Twitter on Friday with the hashtag "mafia".

Adding to the party's woes, Mr Sarkozy, who has stayed out of the dispute in public, was questioned for 12 hours on Thursday by an examining magistrate over alleged illegal party donations during his 2007 presidential campaign.

'Not a mafia'

Mr Juppe, a former foreign minister, announced his initiative to journalists on Friday in Bordeaux, the south-western city of which he is mayor.

Both Mr Fillon and Mr Cope accepted the call to the meeting but the latter rejected a request to remove allegedly partisan members of the UMP appeals commission which is due to hear Mr Fillon's complaint.

Francois Fillon (left) and Jean-Francois Cope at a televised debate in Paris, 25 October Francois Fillon (left) and Jean-Francois Cope engaged in a bitter war of words during the election

If the two men accepted his conditions, Mr Juppe said, he expected the dispute to be resolved within a fortnight "at most".

The "mafia" controversy arose when Mr Fillon told RTL radio: "A political party is not a mafia. It's not a place where you can suppress matters and refuse to tell the truth."

Mr Cope, a former UMP secretary general, later responded that the term mafia was "deeply shocking, totally unworthy and unacceptable".

Mr Fillon says votes from three overseas French territories, omitted from the original count, would hand him victory by 26 votes.

He lost Sunday's ballot of the party membership by just 98 votes amid scenes of chaos and rancour.

Without a solution, there are questions over what kind of party Mr Cope will lead, the BBC's Christian Fraser reports from Paris.

Under his leadership - and in mind of the insults flying - unity looks impossible, our correspondent says.

He flirts with the rhetoric of the far right and is supported by many in the party, but centrist voters who follow Mr Fillon will not back him and a split now looks a dangerous possibility, our correspondent says.

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