By Alexandria Sage
PARIS (Reuters) - Unsmiling, with clenched fists and a set jaw, Nicolas Sarkozy found himself yet again in the stance that has so often marked his political career - his back to the wall.
The French former president's aggressive, televised counter-attack on Wednesday to allegations he tried to obstruct a legal investigation into election campaign irregularities is the clearest sign yet that he intends a comeback, seeking leadership of his party this year ahead of a run for president in 2017.
Though he said he will keep his plans to himself for another few weeks, supporters noted that, as if to better fit the presidential part, he has shaved off the man-of-leisure stubble that had been the hallmark of his official retreat from politics since Francois Hollande thwarted his re-election bid in 2012.
Less obvious is whether his 17-minute, primetime defense can convince fellow conservatives, and voters, that he is simply a victim of biased judges and left-wing ministers out for revenge.
A BVA poll published on Wednesday found that 59 percent of voters were tired of Sarkozy, whose prickly, hard-driving style and celebrity marriage marked his five-year presidency and who is now involved in various ways in six separate legal cases.
Given the low esteem in which many voters hold the French establishment - after two years in the job, Socialist Hollande's approval rating is just 18 percent - Sarkozy's poll numbers do not rule out a comeback. But this week's unprecedented arrest and interrogation of a former head of state have not helped him.
Pollster Celine Bracq of BVA said that Hollande's troubles with the economy gave Sarkozy, 59, plenty to campaign on. "But," she added, "the exercise will be tricky. The calendar of his legal cases is particularly unfavorable for him."
On Wednesday, a judge placed him under formal investigation, raising the possibility of an eventual trial.
Sarkozy leads polls among members of his UMP party ahead of leadership ballot in November to replace Jean-Francois Cope, who quit in May over a funding scandal. But with 25 percent support, his advantage has narrowed - to four points this week from nine a month ago over former prime minister Alain Juppe.
"It's still there, but it is melting away - and that partly explains why he's speeding up his comeback," said Bracq, referring to Sarkozy's comment on Wednesday that he would decide in August or September whether to seek public office again.
That his closest party challenger, Juppe, has a decade-old criminal record for misuse of public funds supports the argument Sarkozy's legal troubles may not yet be terminal for his career.
Out walking in Paris's upmarket Opera district, a woman who gave her name as Chantal had watched Sarkozy's interview and was unfazed by the allegations: "I wouldn't be shocked," she said, "Because all politicians have skeletons in the closet."
Portraying himself as a victim, the former president said no previous head of state had been so ill treated. He said: "I love my country with a passion and I am not the kind of man who gives up faced with such dirty tricks and political machinations."
The 15 hours he spent in police custody on Tuesday, the months of phone taps last year and the 20 or so judges assigned to a series of Sarkozy-related legal cases since he left office were all proof, he said, of a "willingness to humiliate".
It was that lone outsider card that Sarkozy has played before, be it a decade ago when he defied his mentor, the then president Jacques Chirac, to pursue his own rise to power, or in batting aside previous legal difficulties.
Long a polarizing figure in French politics, reaction to Sarkozy's aggressive defense split along party lines.
Conservative newspaper Le Figaro said the Socialists, "driven by an unquenchable desire for revenge, have not and will not stop harassing Nicolas Sarkozy until the end".
Others, like L'Humanite on the left, said Sarkozy's tactics recalled "a certain Silvio Berlusconi", the Italian billionaire prime minister who remained popular with voters while fighting numerous prosecutions he blamed on a left-wing judiciary.
Few have doubted Sarkozy's appetite for a comeback, even as he has kept largely out of the spotlight since his defeat two years ago. A few months ago, he joked that anyone who thought he would run again should pay attention to his shaving habits.
Fans were quick to seize on the new absence of stubble as a sign; one staunch party ally, Nadine Morano, exulted on Twitter: "Sarkozy clean shaven - activists, get ready."
(Additional reporting By Natalie Huet and Pauline Mevel; Editing by Mark John and Alastair Macdonald)