Sarkozy's fighting instincts more in demand than ever
Nicolas Sarkozy is proof of the adage about absence making the heart grow fonder.
Rejected at the polls by voters who were fed up with his divisive leadership and 'bling bling' style, the former French president was, until Thursday night, well down the comeback trail.
With his Socialist successor, Francois Hollande, floundering, his own party beset by poisonous in-fighting and the economy sinking, the 57-year-old right-winger with the supermodel wife had rarely been more popular.
Despite his vow to quit politics if he lost to Hollande, the prospect of a messianic return to centre-stage in time for the next presidential election in 2017 was beginning to look like a one-way bet.
The only cloud on the horizon was three judges in Bordeaux, looking into how exactly Sarkozy funded his successful 2007 campaign.
After 12 hours of interrogation, the judges decided late Thursday that they didn't have enough evidence to formally indict him on charges of illegally raising campaign funds from France's richest woman.
Instead they designated Sarkozy a 'witness under caution'. He was free to go, but the investigation goes on.
Election defeat in May drew down the curtain on a five-year term in which Sarkozy disappointed those who had believed his abrasive style was what France needed.
Ultimately, his sharp-elbowed approach to politics, epitomised by him branding Hollande a liar during a televised debate, and his flashy personal style, turned off too many voters, ensuring he became the first French head of state not to secure a second term in three decades.
Promises of wealth and job creation proved illusory and, in light of the huge cuts the Socialists have been forced to make, Sarkozy's pledge to restore order to the nation's finances now looks long on rhetoric but short on the tough decision-making required to deliver it.
The son of a Hungarian immigrant, Nicolas Sarkozy de Nagy-Bosca was not cut from the usual cloth of the French political class. With no ties to the Paris-based elite, he was always precocious.
An activist at 19, a town mayor at 28, an MP at 34 and minister at 38, Sarkozy won the presidency at 52, and his time in office was lived at an equally frenetic pace.
He divorced his second wife after failing to woo her back from her lover, then married supermodel and singer Carla Bruni and had a daughter with her.
Briefly, with the help of the Carla factor, he was the most popular president since General Charles de Gaulle.
But the seeds of his downfall had been sown, starting on the night of his election triumph, when he was joined by some of France's richest people for a champagne-soaked celebration in Fouquet's, a glitzy eatery on the Champs Elysees in Paris.
The image that party created of Sarkozy as someone with a weakness for tasteless excess may have been a snobbish putdown, but it was one he was to find hard to shake off.
Allegations of cronyism and nepotism marred his term, notably with his decision to allow his 23-year-old son, Jean, to take charge of a public development agency in the La Defense business district.
His promotion of women to senior positions won him plaudits but also criticism over a perceived infatuation with glamour.
Rachida Dati, the daughter of a Moroccan bricklayer whom Sarkozy installed as justice minister, was his most celebrated protege. She lasted just over two years in the post.
Sarkozy also struggled with the 2008 credit crunch and the subsequent financial crises. His fondness for Rolex watches and Ray-Ban sunglasses did him no favours as austerity loomed.
He displayed a surer touch on the international stage, helping negotiate an end to Russia's drive into Georgia and leading the NATO intervention that helped Libyan rebels topple Moamer Kadhafi last year.
Since losing office he has been chasing the cash on the international conference circuit, learning English and experimenting with facial hair. None of that has affected his popularity with voters on the right but it is three judges in Bordeaux he must win over if he is to run for the presidency again.
© 2012 AFP