PARIS - A right-winger famed for his aggressive anti-Muslim rhetoric has been elected to lead France's right-wing UMP party after an election that saw both sides trade accusations of fraud and left the opposition in disarray.
The activists of the UMP have accorded me a majority of their votes and therefore have elected me as the president of the party," said Jean-Francois Cope, the new leader of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), Agence France Presse (AFP) reported.
Taking the helm of UMP, the firebrand Cope defeated former prime minister Francois Fillon by a handful of votes Monday, taking 50.03 percent of the vote.
The razor-thin victory gave 48-year-old Cope leadership over Fillon by only 98 votes from the 300,000 UMP members to succeed former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
France is home to a sizable Muslim minority of six million, the largest in Europe.
Before losing elections to socialist Hollande, Sarkozy has won the ire of French Muslims, estimated at six million, over a series of measures targeting their community.
Sounding bad news for Muslims, Cope has followed Sarkozy steps in pursuing the votes of far right National Front supporters at the end of his five year term.
Though being sidelined to some degree when Sarkozy took office in 2007, he took a largely symbolic post, head of the UMP's parliamentary delegation, using it to raise his profile.
In 2010, he became secretary general of the UMP and continued to gain attention as one of the party's most fierce advocates and debaters.
He has been credited with swinging the party to the right in a bid to take votes from the far-right Front National and raised hackles during the leadership campaign with complaints of "anti-white racism" in French suburbs.
He famously told one campaign rally an anecdote of a group of Muslim "thugs" snatching a pain au chocolat pastry from the hands of a young boy and telling him there was no eating during the Muslim fast of Ramadan.
He also played a prominent role in the UMP's campaign to ban the full-face Islamic veil and hold a controversial debate on national identity.
Cope followed up last month with the publication of "A Manifesto for an Uninhibited Right", in which he lambasted a culture of discrimination against whites amongst immigrant communities in impoverished urban areas.
Taking place six months after Sarkozy lost the presidency to Socialist Francois Hollande, the UMP election was evidence of a deep rift in the party.
"The movement has emerged divided and thus weakened by this excessive confrontation," when the next presidential election will be held, UMP party heavyweight Alain Juppe wrote on his blog.
With both parties citing "many irregularities" in the electoral process, he pleaded with the pair to put a stop to their supporters' "invectives" and warned that "the very existence of the UMP is in question".
Throughout the campaign, it has been less a question of the future of the UMP and more about the two candidates' obsession with 2017, Juppe, Sarkozy's foreign minister, added.
The debacle delighted the party socialist and far-right rivals, mocking UMP's the party's struggles.
"This tragicomedy is a bad vaudeville act that does no honor to French democracy," said Bruno Le Roux, the head of the Socialists' parliamentary faction.
Florian Philippot, deputy leader of the far-right National Front, also pointed to the difficult task in uniting the party after a bitter election battle.
"It is obvious that whoever is elected president of the UMP will have no legitimacy whatsoever given that he will be in charge of a party broken in two," Philippot said.