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Dominique Moisi is a professor at L'Institut d'études politiques de Paris; a senior adviser at the French Institute for International Affairs; and a visiting professor at King's College London.

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy's announcement that he will seek the presidency again in 2017 should come as no surprise. Indeed, it was hard to take seriously his declaration, following his loss to the Socialist Party's François Hollande in the 2012 race, that he was done with politics. Whatever you think about Mr. Sarkozy, there is no denying that he has never been one to stay out of the spotlight for long.

Mr. Sarkozy never really accepted his defeat. Like Germany after the First World War, he instead became consumed with a desire for revenge, compounded by his long-held and poorly hidden lust for power.

Now, emboldened by Mr. Hollande's unpopularity, Mr. Sarkozy seems to think that French voters are ready to welcome him back. Instead of fretting about his own bad reputation, still reflected in public opinion polls, he seems to be fantasizing about a repeat of the 2007 election, when he triumphed easily over the Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal, Mr. Hollande's former partner.

Opinion: With burkini bans, France buries its head in the sand

That may not be so unreasonable. Whether people like Mr. Sarkozy or not, the fact is that, during Mr. Hollande's tenure, France's social, economic and security situation has deteriorated – and many are holding Mr. Hollande directly accountable.

Current conditions may also hurt Mr. Sarkozy's rivals within the Republican Party. In particular, Alain Juppé – his main competition for the party's nomination – could find that his moderate approach becomes a liability, especially now that Mr. Sarkozy is involved.

Both campaigns focus on French identity. But whereas Mr. Juppé, who coined the term l'identité heureuse (the happy identity), aims to transcend the deepening divisions within French society, Mr. Sarkozy seems poised to capitalize on them, presenting Islam as a fundamental threat to the French way of life. Given the current popular mood – soured by recent terrorist attacks, from the murder of 86 people in a truck attack in Nice in July to the savage slaughter of a priest in Normandy later that month – Mr. Sarkozy's approach may just work.

Consider recent local prohibitions in French coastal cities of burkinis, body-covering swimwear favoured by some Muslim women. Surely in a free and diverse society, clothing that enables women to enjoy a popular activity comfortably should be welcomed. Yet Muslim women were targeted for wearing burkinis, with police imposing fines, and many citizens support them.

I was on a beach recently – one where the burkini had not been banned – and watched people's appalled and scornful reactions to a covered Muslim woman splashing in the sea with her family. I even heard a young man announce that the image made him want "to shoot them all." France's diverse and open society has clearly fallen far.

Mr. Sarkozy has read the popular mood well. He knows that the French are feeling defensive and angry, and he wants to use those feelings to win support, including by attracting votes from the far-right National Front's Marine Le Pen. In this sense, he resembles U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has won the support of a swath of angry voters by portraying himself as the saviour of a once-great country in decline.

But Mr. Sarkozy could well find that the very fears he is stoking make people afraid to choose him. With his buzzy energy and nervous tics, he may not seem like the kind of reliable and steadfast leader that a nervous country so desperately needs.

We shall soon know the answer. New public opinion polls will provide a strong indication of how the French perceive the newly resurfaced Mr. Sarkozy. Do the reasons voters ended his presidency four years ago still hold? Or is the new context enough to make him seem like France's best option?

More telling, of course, will be the party primary in November. Given Mr. Hollande's rock-bottom approval ratings, it is widely believed that the person who wins the Republican primary will become the next president. And although Mr. Juppé remains ahead in opinion polls so far, voters could reject his happy version of French identity in favour of Mr. Sarkozy's much darker one.

I still believe that Mr. Juppé is most likely to emerge as France's next president. In terms of age and profile, he resembles a French version of Hillary Clinton, more practised in the exercise than the conquest of power. But fear is a powerful weapon, and Mr. Sarkozy, like Mr. Trump, is eager to wield it.

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Project Syndicate