PARIS (Reuters) - Nicolas Sarkozy announced his political comeback on Friday, saying he would seek the leadership of France’s main rightist party, opening the way for a possible return to the Elysee Palace in 2017 elections.
The former French president ended months of speculation about his future with a message on Facebook, saying he was ready to take charge of the conservative, opposition UMP party, which has been riven by rivalry since he was ousted from power.
“I am a candidate for the presidency of my political family,” he said.
“I will propose reforming it from top to bottom so as to create, within three months, the basis of a new and broad movement that can speak to the French as a whole ... This broad movement will adopt a new project,” he added.
A hyperactive and divisive figure reviled by many left-wing voters, Sarkozy has a series of legal troubles hanging over him that could yet de-rail his hopes of regaining power following defeat against Francois Hollande in a 2012 presidential ballot.
After that loss, he told supporters he would vanish from political life and French media has reported that his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, was opposed to any return.
But his supporters consider him the only politician capable of rallying the fractured center-right UMP party, which in recent months has been hit by a party funding scandal and is due to elect its new leader on Nov. 29.
“We’ll be able to count on a strong and powerful voice to rally against this dysfunctional ruling coalition,” said Nadine Morano, a European Parliament deputy and ardent Sarkozy backer.
A spokesman for Hollande’s ruling Socialists described the announcement as a “non-event”, as did the anti-immigrant National Front of Marine Le Pen, which has become the third force in French politics.
“Most French see him as yesterday’s man. We need new faces and new ideas,” FN deputy leader Florian Philippot told i>Tele.
“From our point of view, he’s a great candidate,” he added, suggesting that his unpopularity would help propel the FN’s Le Pen into the second-round run-off of the 2017 presidential vote.
Sarkozy, 59, credits himself with having helped steer Europe through its worst economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression before being ousted. He said he used his withdrawal from politics to reflect and talk to ordinary French people.
“I saw the rise, like an unstoppable tide, of disarray, rejection and anger ... Among many French people, I saw the temptation to no longer believe in anyone or anything,” he said.
“This absence of all hope, so peculiar to France of today, now forces us to completely reinvent ourselves.”
Gradually emerging as the leader of the French right in the mid-2000s, Sarkozy cast himself as a reformer with bold ideas who would break with France’s past.
His aggressive, American-style manner both attracted and repelled voters as he pledged to reform the country’s labor markets and tax system to bolster industry and job creation. He defied mass strikes to raise the retirement age to 62 from 60.
In foreign policy, he brokered a ceasefire to end a short-lived war between Russia and Georgia in 2008 and championed an international military intervention in Libya three years later.
However, a public perception that he was on the side of the rich earned him the tag of “President Bling-Bling” and won him little sympathy from voters feeling economic hardship.
His old nemesis Hollande has also struggled to hold on to the support of the French electorate, with his popularity ratings sinking to record lows of just 13 percent, making any eventual re-election appear an uphill struggle.
Sarkozy faces challenges from rivals including two ex-prime ministers, Alain Juppe and Francois Fillon, to secure the ticket of the French right for the 2017 vote.
A survey of UMP voters by pollster Harris Interactive published last week showed him by far their favorite to take the helm of the party.
But, underlining Sarkozy’s polarizing image, Juppe scores better than him in surveys of all French voters when asked who they would like to see as their next president.
Sarkozy has denied all wrongdoing in a series of outstanding legal cases which could complicate his comeback efforts.
A cloud was lifted off his future last October when a court dropped inquiries into whether he had exploited the mental frailty of France’s richest woman, L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, to fund his successful 2007 election campaign.
But that still left a separate investigation open on whether he illegally used funding from late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi for the same campaign.
A new twist emerged this year when phone taps of Sarkozy and his lawyer, carried out in the Gaddafi inquiry, prompted magistrates to open yet another case into suggestions Sarkozy promised a judge a career boost in return for favors.
Additional reporting by Nicholas Vinocur; Writing by Mark John; Editing by James Regan and Crispian Balmer