Paris: “You won’t hear about me anymore,” Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters, as he contemplated defeat to Francois Hollande in the 2012 French presidential election.
Just over two years later, the man with the ex-supermodel wife and the “bling-bling” nickname — referring to his flashy style — is back, promising to “save” France from political and economic crisis.
Undeterred by a tangled web of legal difficulties, the energetic 59-year-old son of a Hungarian immigrant has been agonising for months about a return to front-line politics.
But he finally put an end to the worst-kept secret in French politics in a very 21st century fashion, announcing on his Facebook page that he was a candidate to lead his conservative UMP party.
Love him or hate him, there is no denying that his return will shake up French politics. Many in the UMP are loyally devoted, but polls show a majority of voters would prefer him to remain in the wilderness.
“Nicolas Sarkozy’s return is a very good thing for him, but a very bad thing for the UMP,” said political analyst Philippe Braud.
His tilt at the Elysee Palace “will reawaken a ‘Sarkophobia’ which is still extremely strong in France,” he told AFP.
Before Sarkozy can even think of taking on Hollande, the only president in history more unpopular than he was, he must first beat off UMP rivals, notably former prime minister Francois Fillon and his own former foreign minister Alain Juppe.
Perhaps a more daunting obstacle is his tangle of legal woes.
He was charged in July with corruption and influence peddling in a case that won him the unhappy distinction of being the first former president to be detained for police questioning in a criminal probe.
There are also legal questions around the financing of his 2007 and 2012 campaigns which could come back to bite him.
But his allies say his legal travails, which they ascribe to pressure from the ruling Socialists, will only make him all the more determined.
Self-confidence is not something he lacks. Former president and mentor Jacques Chirac once said he “doesn’t doubt anything, especially not himself.”
And indeed, Sarkozy has been here before.
Last year, he was charged with taking advantage of France’s richest woman when she was too frail to know what she was doing, a case that centres on cash-stuffed envelopes allegedly being passed to UMP officials.
When the charge was finally dropped in October, his path back to power appeared to have been cleared and polls showed he was best placed to bring the Elysee back to the UMP.
But the drip-drip negative impact of being constantly linked to graft cases appears to have chipped away at his standing with voters on the right of the political spectrum.
Sarkozy has always been something of an outsider in the staid world of French politics.
The son of a Hungarian aristocrat who arrived penniless in France, Nicolas Sarkozy de Nagy-Bosca burst on to the political scene as a town mayor at 28, an MP at 34 and minister at 38.
He won the presidency at only 52 and was initially seen as a much-needed breath of dynamism, making a splash on the international scene and wooing the corporate world.
Breaking a long-standing taboo, Sarkozy also put his private life on display, divorcing his second wife while in office and publicly wooing Carla Bruni, a former model and now successful singer.
He married her in 2008 and the two had a daughter, Giulia, a few months before the 2012 election.
But as France’s economy floundered amid the wider Eurozone economic crisis, Sarkozy’s public image took a beating.
His so-called “bling-bling” style — the seeds of which were laid with a champagne-soaked election night party at a glitzy Champs Elysees restaurant — provoked outrage as job losses mounted.
Hollande, a mild-mannered Socialist party apparatchik, seemed the perfect antidote two years ago but has since run into his own problems — especially in failing to turn around the French economy.
And, if Hollande’s estranged former partner Valerie Trierweiler is to be believed, the man who set himself up as the “normal” president secretly despises the poor, calling them “toothless.”
With Hollande so unpopular, the election is there for the taking, but some doubt whether Sarkozy is the man to do it.
If Sarkozy runs, “the Socialists are assured of victory — not with Hollande but with a different candidate,” said Braud.