By Ingrid Melander and Sophie Louet
PARIS (Reuters) - This was going to be the landslide win that set Nicolas Sarkozy on a fast-track to regaining the French presidency in 2017. Or at least that was his plan.
Instead, Sarkozy's conservative party came behind the far-right in the first round of regional elections on Sunday, and the ex-president finds himself under growing criticism from within his own camp.
"There is no official, legitimate leader that represents the whole party," said Eric Woerth, who as a conservative minister was close to Sarkozy during his presidency.
From grassroots lawmakers to party heavyweights the message is: as soon as this Sunday's second round run-off in the elections is over, the party must do some soul-searching.
"We need to have a debate on why we've become inaudible," former conservative prime minister Alain Juppe told reporters.
Sixty-year-old Sarkozy, a divisive figure both loved and hated among right-wing voters, was president for five years before losing to Socialist Francois Hollande in 2012.
Once nicknamed the "hyper-president" for his energetic style, Sarkozy claims credit for helping France and the euro zone through the global financial crisis. He also dashed off to Tripoli to meet cheering Libyans in 2011 after a NATO bombing campaign, in which France played a leading role, had helped rebels to overthrew Muammar Gaddafi.
But Sarkozy disappointed some French by under-achieving on reforms to revive the economy, and he is also dogged by investigations into his campaign financing.
Now has come the regional election setback, when the far-right National Front (FN) secured 27.7 percent of the first round vote nationally, boosted by fears over the Islamic State militant attacks that killed 130 people in Paris on Nov. 13.
Sarkozy's The Republicans and their allies took 26.65 percent.
"It's a slap in the face," political analyst Thomas Guenole said. "They're getting the same score as in 2010, when they were in power and were punished for the impact of the global financial crisis. Now they are in the opposition but they're not benefiting at all from voter anger with the ruling Socialists."
Juppe, who is also vying for the conservative ticket for the 2017 presidential elections, and other party heavyweights, said they were closing ranks before Sunday's runoff, but made clear a tough debate would follow immediately.
Asked if there was a problem with the party line, he told reporters: "Yes, of course."
Juppe, who is set to be Sarkozy's main rival in party primaries next year, supports a centrist line.
By contrast, Sarkozy has set the party of a right-wing course since coming out of political retirement a year ago. In doing so, he has tried to counter FN leader Marine Le Pen by engaging on the very themes that have boosted her popularity.
"The big showdown will be for Monday and it could well be bloody," said a senior lawmaker, who declined to be named because Sarkozy has urged party officials to keep their views to themselves before the runoff.
Over the past few months, Sarkozy has promised "war" on Le Pen but has at the same time taken a hard line on immigration and Islam in an attempt to lure back voters from her.
Sarkozy has opposed school canteens providing an alternative meal when pork is on the menu, said he favored banning women from wearing a veil in universities, criticized the Socialist government's decision to take in 24,000 refugees as part of an EU-wide plan and called for immigration to be curbed.
He defended that line in an interview with France 2 television this week. "We need to reinstate firmness and authority in this country," he said. This was the right response to the "exasperation" that he said explained the strong FN showing in the first round, he added.
But Sylvain Crepon, a political analyst who specializes on the far-right, said this was precisely what explained why The Republicans had failed to benefit from the Socialists' unpopularity.
"Running after the FN's campaign themes, basically campaigning for the FN and then saying you are the barrier against the FN, how can that work?" he said.
The number of regions that the party wins in the run-off will be central to the party's post-mortem. Party insiders say Sarkozy had hoped a few months ago to score landslide victories in about 10 of the 13 regions, and had been planning to use this success to overhaul the party more to his liking.
One of the biggest tests will be southeast France, where he backed the candidacy of Christian Estrosi, who in the first round came 14 percentage points behind 25-year-old Marion Marechal-Le Pen, the youngest family member of the FN political dynasty.
"We need to keep a cool head," Sarkozy told a meeting of party lawmakers on Tuesday, according to participants in the closed-doors discussion. "Now is not the time to discuss The Republicans' line. After Sunday, yes, we can have that debate."
(Additional reporting by Emile Picy; Writing by Ingrid Melander; editing by David Stamp)