By Catherine Bremer
PARIS (Reuters) - France's conservatives will elect a new leader on Sunday who will determine whether the party ousted in May from a 17-year presidential reign will hold to the centre or move to the right in a quest to regain power in 2017.
Moderate ex-prime minister Francois Fillon, who regularly tops political popularity polls, is tipped to narrowly beat Jean-Francois Cope, a disciple of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy and his hard stance on issues including immigration.
Yet with two thirds of UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) members wanting Sarkozy to return for the 2017 election, the result will be close and a Fillon victory would not completely bury an existential crisis in the opposition party.
Socialist President Francois Hollande has a clear majority in parliament and controls most French regions, but a slump in his ratings is giving the right an audience.
Fillon, an urbane 58-year-old, appeals more to centre-ground voters disillusioned with Hollande's left-wing policies, such as tax hikes on high-earners.
Cope, a more polarizing figure, is playing to the nearly one in five people who voted for the far-right National Front in the first election round in May, betting that rampant unemployment will keep tensions high over immigration.
The gulf between them reflects a split in a party founded by former President Jacques Chirac in 2002 to group several centre-right parties and carry on the legacy of post-war leader Charles de Gaulle, who sought to transcend the left-right rift.
The UMP is still smarting from losing the Senate, the presidency and the lower house within months of each other.
"There are two political lines here," Fillon said this week.
"One makes the UMP narrower, the other, mine, seeks to widen it, or at least preserve the project of the UMP's founders to keep within the same family values which go from the centre through to the party's right," he told Le Figaro daily.
Cope, mayor of a town near Paris who speaks in the same brash way Sarkozy does and can be more provocative, alleged recently that city suburbs brim with "anti-white" racism.
He irked many inside his party by making much of a one-off incident where a boy had his pain au chocolat pastry snatched from him by Muslim youths during the Ramadan fasting period.
"I am the tenant of a right which does not have hang-ups, which tells the truth and is comfortable with itself," Cope told Le Figaro in an interview alongside Fillon's.
"No taboos, no stonewalling. France has far fewer complexes than its politicians have," he said, stating his values as authority, courage and measured generosity.
Cope played a central role in Sarkozy's banning of the full-face Islamic veil, aims to appease those who find Muslim customs invasive in secular and traditionally Catholic France.
Unlike Fillon, a motor-racing fan who is ready to run for the 2017 presidency, the younger Cope, 48, has said he would stand aside if Sarkozy decides to make a comeback.
Whichever direction the party takes will be tested a year from now in municipal and communal elections where Hollande risks losing ground, barring an economic rebound.
Right-wing ideology aside, Cope and the bushy-browed Fillon have similar views on economic policy and Europe, and have been critical of Hollande's challenge to Berlin's focus on austerity.
Sarkozy, praised for his handling of the financial crisis, has told friends he would seek re-election if the Socialists mishandle economic policy. Yet aides say he will keep a low profile on Sunday, when some 280,000 UMP members will vote, with results due from around 9 p.m. (2000 GMT).
(Additional reporting by Sophie Louet; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)
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