Already damaged by fierce in-fighting last year, France's main opposition right-wing party is once again deeply divided – this time over relations with the far-right Front National (FN).
Former Prime Minister Francois Fillon stirred up a hornet's nest over the weekend when he called for his UMP party to abandon its long-established policy of treating the FN as a pariah.
France holds municipal elections in March next year, and a survey published last week by polling firm CSA said the FN was expected to win 16 percent of the votes in the first round, as it rides a wave of popularity on the back of
record unemployment, mounting concern over gun and other crime and support for its traditional anti-immigration and anti-EU themes.
Traditionally, other political parties have been keen to do whatever they can to stem the progress of a party whose founder and former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen has been repeatedly convicted for inciting racism and holocaust denial.
In the 2002 Presidential election, when Le Pen reached the second round, leaders of the Socialist Party called for their supporters to turn out and vote for the centre-right candidate Jacques Chirac in line with a principle
known as the Republican Front.
In the case of a run-off being between the Socialists and the FN, the UMP has recently advocated that its supporters abstain on the basis of the "ni-ni" rule – neither the FN, nor the FS.
Fillon's crime was to suggest that "ni-ni" be dropped in favour of advising UMP supporters to vote for the "least sectarian" candidate, effectively opening the door to centre-right votes being transferred to the party now run by Le Pen's daughter Marine Le Pen.
Other UMP heavyweights have condemned the remarks as divisive and serving no purpose.
Party president Jean-Francois Cope said "the future of the UMP will be at stake if we let it veer to the extreme right."
Former prime minister Alain Juppe also expressed his disbelief that an "experienced politician" like Fillon could steer the party into a "trap."
"Too many immigrants"
But the UMP is slipping in poll ratings, while the Front's approval rating among voters has risen by four points in six months, the CSA survey shows.
In what some see as a way to attract far-right voters, the UMP has appeared to harden its stand on sensitive issues like immigration and security over the months.
While there are still distinct differences between the UMP and the Eurosceptic FN on vital issues – especially economic policy – both former president Nicolas Sarkozy and Fillon are on record as saying there are "too many immigrants" in France.
A sense that the two political forces are moving closer together has been encouraged by Marine Le Pen's efforts to detoxify the party's image.
These have included recruiting candidates from ethnic minorities and expelling those who have been caught making explicitly racist statements.
The UMP certainly needs to bolster and broaden its appeal to voters, its standing having taken a battering last year when a leadership duel between Fillon and Sarkozy loyalist Cope degenerated into a row over alleged ballot
But politicians on the other side of the spectrum are urging the centre right grouping not to be tempted by closer ties the FN which, they fear, could one day evolve into a powerful electoral alliance.
Socialist President Francois Hollande used a television interview on Sunday to recall that he had personally voted for Chirac in 2002 and Prime Minister
Jean-Marc Ayrault has warned Fillon that he will never be forgiven if he helps the FN into power at any level of government.