PARIS — Nicolas Sarkozy tried to quit politics after losing the French presidency, and instead followed his wife's international singing tours and traveled the speakers' circuit.
He couldn't stay away. "I miss it so much," he said recently of the political scene he once dominated. Sarkozy is almost certain to win leadership of his troubled conservative party in an election starting Friday, a crucial step in a bid to win his old presidential job back.
It may be a tough slog.
While the dynamic, hard-edged Sarkozy presented the world an image of strength as president in 2007-2012, at home he has shown vulnerabilities, facing legal troubles and challenges from the resurgent far right. And he has always been a divisive figure.
His party, the UMP or Union for a Popular Movement, has also struggled with money problems and fierce internal rivalries since Sarkozy lost the presidency to Socialist Francois Hollande in 2012.
UMP members are choosing a new leader Friday and Saturday, and Sarkozy, 59, is expected to emerge the winner over challengers Bruno Le Maire and Herve Mariton in a first-round vote.
"I believe he's the best because now he knows what it's like to be in charge," Virginie Lemay, a mother of four, said at a Sarkozy rally in the Paris suburb of Velizy-Villacoublay.
"Maybe he's not perfect," she said. "But it's a long way to the (2017) presidential election and he has time to spell out his campaign."
While Sarkozy was voted out of office in part because of France's lagging economy, many French voters think his successor is doing even worse.
Socialist President Francois Hollande is less popular than any French leader in modern history, largely for failing to fulfill promises to halt rising unemployment.
That should leave the conservatives well-placed for a comeback.
But Sarkozy already faces two internal challengers for the UMP's primary in 2016 to choose the party's 2017 presidential candidate: former prime ministers Alain Juppe and Francois Fillon. Neither is running in the UMP election this weekend.
Sarkozy proposes to rebuild the UMP and paints himself as the most qualified man to do so.
"I've got France in my blood," said Sarkozy at the rally in Velizy-Villacoublay.
"With age comes perhaps less energy, but more wisdom," he said in a TV interview in September.
But his ideas are already creating divisions.
Under pressure from anti-gay marriage activists, he said he was in favor of "rewriting" the 2013 law allowing same-sex unions, though polls show most French support gay marriage, including some prominent voices in his conservative party. The law brought hundreds of thousands of mostly right-wing, traditional, Catholic protesters to the streets.
Sarkozy also said during his campaign for the UMP leadership that he's in favor of the delivery of two controversial warships to Russia. The deal for the ships was signed under his term in 2011, but Hollande has put delivery on hold because of Russia's role in violence in Ukraine.
Sarkozy, once a key champion of greater powers for the European Union, is now proposing to suppress half of the EU's powers.
These positions appear to be efforts to win over votes from the far right National Front, which was once a pariah party and now is one of the country's biggest vote-getters.
Leader Marine Le Pen, holding a party congress this weekend expected to give her a boost as she eyes the 2017 presidential election, has tapped into widespread frustration with immigration and the economy. But moderate conservatives are wary of Sarkozy's efforts to mimic some National Front ideas.
Sarkozy also faces legal troubles in several separate corruption investigations. He denies wrongdoing in all cases and says he's being singled out by rivals for judicial harassment.
His future political success or failure may come down to his personality. Many voters found him too flashy as president, spending time with rich friends while the economy struggled and drawing attention to his marriage while in office to former supermodel Carla Bruni.
Sarkozy's dynamism is what others like about him.
"If you compare with any other politician, he's the one with the most of energy and persuasion," said supporter Quentin Ravier, 33, at a recent rally. "After Hollande's disaster, we need someone with charisma."
Angela Charlton contributed to this report.
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