France UMP Party leader steps down amid funding scandal
Jean-Francois Cope, head of France's main opposition UMP party, agreed to step down amid allegations of party funding fraud, party officials said, triggering a race to secure the conservative party's ticket for the 2017 presidential election.
The party's finances have been the subject of a legal inquiry after allegations earlier this year that an events company hired for Sarkozy's 2012 re-election bid was ordered by party officials to produce millions of euros' worth of fake invoices to cover campaign cost over-runs.
Cope, who was party general secretary at the time, has repeatedly stated he had no knowledge of any wrongdoing but has faced mounting pressure from party officials to step down.
His position was already weakened by the poor result of the UMP in Sunday's European Parliament elections, where it was beaten into second place by the far-right National Front.
Aside from ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, major contenders include his centrist former premier Francois Fillon and Alain Juppe, whose efforts as prime minister in the 1990s to reform France's welfare state sparked weeks of street protests.
UMP officials emerging from closed-door crisis talks said party bosses agreed to put in place a temporary leadership team of Fillon, Juppe and Jean-Pierre Raffarin, another ex-premier, to run the UMP until a leadership contest set for October.
A UMP source said Cope's resignation - along with that of the current party leadership - would take effect from June 15.