PARIS (AFP) - It's one of the worst kept secrets in French politics: Nicolas Sarkozy, who leapt to power in 2007 before suffering a humbling defeat five years later, is poised to make his comeback this week.
After several years of "will he-won't he", France's former "bling-bling" leader is expected to announce his return to the cut-throat political frontline despite being directly or indirectly involved in at least seven graft investigations.
The energetic 59-year-old - who inspires hate and adoration in equal measure - is due to announce, any time between Friday and Sunday, that he is standing for the presidency of the centre-right opposition UMP party.
A political heavyweight, the man who once told journalists they would never hear from him again if he lost the 2012 polls, will re-emerge just as his one-time nemesis Francois Hollande struggles to contain an economic crisis that has seen his popularity sink to record lows.
But experts warn that a Sarkozy comeback will be no easy feat.
"He had gradually forged the image of a wise man who stayed on the edge of the river and who only made comments every now and then," says Pascal Perrineau from the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. "But if he becomes UMP president, he will be asked for his opinion on everything every morning. There is a risk he will be worn down."
A lot of legal woes
Sarkozy has largely remained out of the public eye since his electoral defeat, only making appearances in carefully orchestrated outings such as at the concerts of his singer-wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. He has been working the highly-paid conference circuit in New York, London, Rio de Janeiro, Doha and Amman.
But the son of a Hungarian immigrant still remains hooked on public office. Many in the embattled and divided UMP party are loyally devoted to Sarkozy, but he also has a lot of rivals within. Chief among these is Alain Juppe, a popular politician who served as defence and then foreign minister under Sarkozy and has announced he will stand for UMP primaries planned for 2016, with a view to running for president the following year. Polls suggest Juppe is the favourite among the French even if Sarkozy remains the most popular within his own camp.
Father-of-four Sarkozy will also have to juggle ongoing investigations that involve him in one form or another. He was charged in July with corruption and influence peddling related to his alleged attempt to interfere in judicial proceedings in another case. There are also legal questions around the financing of his 2007 and 2012 campaigns which could come back to bite him.
"If he becomes UMP president... Sarkozy's political agenda will be constantly pushed around by an investigation into this case or that case, by a judge summoning him for questioning," says Perrineau.
And while his supporters are desperate for him to return to politics, the wider French population doesn't really care. A poll released on Tuesday by OpinionWay found that 64 percent of French people are not interested in his upcoming comeback announcement.
'Can't be the same'
At a time of near-zero growth and record unemployment, all eyes will nevertheless be on whether Sarkozy will come back a changed man after a five-year term that saw him pull off audacious foreign policy moves but broadly fail on the economic front, particularly on jobs. Rather than coming down, unemployment rose to close to 10 per cent on Sarkozy's watch at the height of the financial crisis, and more than double that rate among young people.
His "bling-bling" image also shocked the country after he celebrated his 2007 victory at a posh Paris restaurant and went straight for a holiday on his billionaire friend's yacht.
"The same?" asks L'Express weekly on its front-page photo collage of Sarkozy in 2014 and back in 2007.
"Gone is the 2012 worn-down candidate. The political animal is back," wrote the magazine.