The race to lead France's conservative opposition is in chaos this morning after both contenders claimed to be winning the leadership ballot.

Jean-Francois Cope, a hardline disciple of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, said he was 1,000 votes in front of Mr Sarkozy's former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who declared 20 minutes later that he was in fact winning.

Ballot-counting resumed at 10am (9am Irish time) after a pause caused by allegations of fraud.

The controversy has already undermined a contest that was meant to give the right a fresh start after it lost its 17-year hold on the presidency.

"This is known as ballot-stuffing. It's pretty pathetic," Mr Cope told BFM television.

While the contest would normally decide the UMP's (Union for a Popular Movement) candidate for the presidential election in 2017, surveys show that two-thirds of party members see Mr Sarkozy better placed to wrest power back from the ruling Socialists.

Mr Sarkozy has told aides he would feel obliged to stage a comeback if Socialist President Francois Hollande fails to revive France's sickly economy.

"Even without knowing who the winner is, we can state that the true victor of this vote is called Nicolas Sarkozy," the business daily Les Echos wrote in an editorial.

Mr Cope told BFM television that more votes had been counted than there were voter signatures, proving there had been fraud.

Mr Fillon, who said he had a lead of more than 200 votes, also complained of irregularities in the voting process.

"We don't have the right to proclaim results before those whose responsibility it is have even done so," Mr Fillon said.

The UMP, founded by former conservative president Jacques Chirac in 2002 to group together various centre-right parties, is reeling from the loss of the presidency, parliament and most French regions.

Conservative daily Le Figaro talked on its front page of an open crisis at the UMP, whose leadership contest was meant to determine whether it cleaves to the centre under Mr Fillon or moves right under the combative Mr Cope in a quest to regain power.

Christophe Barbier, editor of the weekly L'Express, noted that even if Mr Sarkozy ended up being the best-placed candidate to run for the party in 2017, he could not return to a party torn by divisions and infighting.

"The entire kingdom of the right is in ruins," Mr Barbier said.

"Whoever the winner is today, his legitimacy will be weak. Sarkozy can only make a comeback if the party is in good health."