Sarkozy: 'Bling-bling' comeback king

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy attends the French Ligue 1 soccer match between Paris St Germain and Nice at the Parc des Princes Stadium in Paris Nov 29, 2014. Bruised by a humiliating election loss and ensnared in a tangle of legal woes, wh
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy attends the French Ligue 1 soccer match between Paris St Germain and Nice at the Parc des Princes Stadium in Paris Nov 29, 2014. Bruised by a humiliating election loss and ensnared in a tangle of legal woes, when Nicolas Sarkozy vowed he was moving on from politics French voters thought they had seen the last of him but he wrested back control of his opposition UMP in party elections on Saturday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (AFP) - Bruised by a humiliating election loss and ensnared in a tangle of legal woes, when Nicolas Sarkozy vowed he was moving on from politics French voters thought they had seen the last of him.

But two and a half years later, his parting shot that "you won't hear about me anymore" was a distant memory after Sarkozy wrested back control of his opposition UMP in party elections on Saturday.

The party leadership election is only the first obstacle in Sarkozy's race back to the Elysee to reclaim the keys from President Francois Hollande in 2017.

With much fanfare, the man with the ex-supermodel wife and the "bling-bling" nickname - referring to his flashy style - swept back onto the political stage in September, promising to "save" France from political and economic crisis.

Undeterred by a morass of legal difficulties, the energetic 59-year-old put an end to the worst-kept secret in French politics by announcing on his Facebook page that he was a candidate to lead his conservative UMP party.

Loathed and loved in equal measure, his return has shaken up French politics and polarised members of a party already in disarray.

"Sarkozy, although he is a very divisive politician, is clearly very much liked," said Andrew Knapp, an expert in French politics at Britain's University of Reading.

But before Sarkozy can even think of taking on Hollande - the only president in history more unpopular than he was - he must first stave off UMP rivals in 2016 primaries.

Chief among them is his own former foreign minister Alain Juppe, who welcomed Sarkozy's return with the words: "The match has begun."

Perhaps a more daunting obstacle is the snarl of legal woes over the financing of his 2007 and 2012 campaigns which could come back to bite him.

"The party faithful seem to have decided that no matter what judges throw at him, Sarkozy is their darling. I don't think that is true of the wider electorate," said Knapp.

'BLING-BLING' PRESIDENT

Sarkozy has always been something of an outsider in the staid world of French politics.

The son of a Hungarian aristocrat who arrived penniless in France, Nicolas Sarkozy de Nagy-Bosca burst on to the political scene as a town mayor at 28, an MP at 34 and minister at 38.

He won the presidency at only 52 and was initially seen as a much-needed breath of dynamism, making a splash on the international scene and wooing the corporate world.

Breaking a longstanding taboo, Sarkozy also put his private life on display, divorcing his second wife while in office and publicly wooing Carla Bruni, a former model and now successful singer.

He married her in 2008 and the two had a daughter, Giulia, a few months before the 2012 election.

But as France's economy floundered amid the wider eurozone economic crisis, Sarkozy's public image took a beating.

His so-called "bling-bling" style - the seeds of which were laid with a champagne-soaked election night party at a glitzy Champs-Elysees restaurant - provoked outrage as job losses mounted.

Hollande, a mild-mannered Socialist party apparatchik, seemed the perfect antidote two years ago but has since run into his own problems - especially in failing to turn around the French economy.

And, if Hollande's estranged former partner Valerie Trierweiler is to be believed, the man who set himself up as the "normal" president secretly despises the poor, calling them "toothless".

With Hollande so unpopular, the election is there for the taking, but some doubt whether Sarkozy is the man to do it.

Either way, both men have to contend with the soaring popularity of far-right leader Marine Le Pen whose National Front is the current favourite in polls.