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Sarkozy flirts with comeback attempt

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Her husband, former president Jacques Chirac of France, may be long gone from public life, but Bernadette Chirac remains a wily political operator. When she speaks out, it is usually worth paying attention.

Twice recently she has announced that "of course" former president Nicolas Sarkozy, Chirac’s Gaullist successor, will run again for president in 2017.

Her latest aside came on Feb. 14 on Le Petit Journal, a satirical television show that has spent much time mocking the former first lady. When shown a photograph of Sarkozy, she grinned like a love-struck teenager.

Would he run again? "Yes," she replied without missing a beat.

She said the same on the radio a few weeks ago.

When Sarkozy was defeated in 2012 by the Socialist François Hollande, he promised to disappear from public view. This always seemed improbable. Sarkozy is not temperamentally suited to retirement. A political showman with a highly competitive personality, he seemed unlikely to rest until he had a chance of evicting the man who ousted him.

Since 2012 Sarkozy has mostly kept a low profile in France, jetting around the world and giving lucrative lectures. The more absent he has been, however, the higher his ratings have climbed — from 31 per cent a month after losing office to 40 per cent today, according to one poll. This makes him France’s most popular politician, alongside Manuel Valls, Hollande’s interior minister.

In recent months, however, Sarkozy has turned up — and turned heads — at concerts given by his wife, Carla Bruni, a model-turned-singer who is on tour. Last week he received a rock-star greeting when he came to a campaign rally for Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the center-right U.M.P. party’s candidate in next month’s mayoral election in Paris. It looked every bit like the start of a 2017 campaign. According to French press reports, Sarkozy shortly will take his unofficial campaign to Berlin, where he may once again meet Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

It is a high-risk strategy. Although it must be galling for the unpopular Hollande to see his predecessor treated like a star, it is equally irksome for Sarkozy’s center-right rivals. No single alternative candidate has emerged within the U.M.P. Instead potential runners, who include Jean-François Copé, the party’s nominal leader, and former prime ministers François Fillon and Alain Juppé, are watching each other warily. None of them would be happy to see Sarkozy return to steal the show.

Most hazardous for Sarkozy, it is far from clear that French voters would feel so well disposed were he to try to make a comeback. Part of the reason he is now relatively popular is that he says nothing.

The moment he announced that he wants to run again, the warm feelings might evaporate, and the French might remember why they voted him out in the first place.

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