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France's Sarkozy announces return to politics

France's former president Nicolas Sarkozy announced his return to politics on Friday, declaring he would seek the leadership of the opposition UMP in a move that would position him for a 2017 presidential bid.

The announcement—posted on his Facebook page—ended months of speculation that the 59-year-old conservative would return to the fray after his defeat by socialist Francois Hollande in 2012.

Nicolas Sarkozy
Thomas Samson | AFP | Getty Images
Nicolas Sarkozy

"I am a candidate for the presidency of my political family," said Sarkozy in his Facebook post.

"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.


The move is "not entirely unexpected", said Nicholas Spiro, managing director at Spiro Sovereign Strategy. "He's been plotting his return to politics for some time," Spiro told CNBC.

Douglas Webber, professor of political sciences at the INSEAD business school, forecast Sarkozy would likely succeed in regaining leadership of the UMP. However, his path to leadership and a potential presidential bid in the 2017 elections may not be easy—other UMP politicians may not want to step aside after months of infighting for the top spot.

One rival for the throne is former Prime Minister Alain Juppé. According to Webber, Sarkozy is more popular than Juppé amongst UMP activists and militants, but Juppé is more popular with the electorate.

The former president remains a very controversial politician "who is despised by a considerable portion of the French electorate," said Webber. Sarkozy currently faces several court cases for charges including corruption.

"His number one problem", said Spiro, "will be to explain to the French electorate, if he does in fact run [for President], why one earth the French should actually trust him."

Spiro added that "as far as reforms are concerned", Sarkozy "did nothing" during his five years as president, so his economic credibility lies "in tatters".

Meanwhile, Sarkozy will have to contend with a stronger far-right Front National party, which has strengthened in the past couple of years under its new leader, Marine Le Pen.

"How he deals with the challenge of Le Pen is absolutely crucial," said Spiro, who forecast Sarkozy would favor a rapprochement with the far-right. At the end of his former presidency, Sarkozy hardened his stance on immigration and security issues to poach far-right voters.

Webber warned that Sarkozy's bid for presidency could have unintended consequences—namely, splitting the UMP party and the center-right vote. In which case, "Marine le Pen would have a very good chance of winning."

Victory in 2017?

A hyperactive and divisive figure reviled by many left-wing voters, Sarkozy is seen by his supporters as the only politician capable of rallying the fractured centre-right UMP party to a victory in 2017. But any political comeback could be tripped up by a series of legal troubles hanging over his head.

Sarkozy, who credits himself with having helped steer Europe through its worst economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression before being voted out, said he used his temporary withdrawal from politics to reflect and talk to ordinary French people.

"I have seen 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, 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.

Read MoreCould France see the return of Nicolas Sarkozy?

His aggressive, American-style manner both attracted and repelled voters as he pledged to reform the country's labour markets and tax system to bolster industry and job creation. He stood down hundreds of thousands of strikers to raise France's 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 widespread public perception that he was on the side of the rich earned him the tag of "President Bling-Bling" and little sympathy with voters feeling economic hardship.

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