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Philippe Wojazer, Pool, Associated Press
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy votes at a UMP party permanence for the leadership of France’s main opposition party, the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), in Paris, Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014. France’s main opposition party, the UMP, is holding elections Friday and Saturday for a new leader between France's former President Nicolas Sarkozy, Bruno Le Maire and Herve Mariton.

PARIS — Returning from the political wilderness, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken a big step toward a possible re-election bid by winning the leadership of the conservative party.

Sarkozy had been widely expected to win the Union for a Popular Movement leadership in the vote by party members Saturday. The 59-year-old Gaullist collected 64.5 percent of the vote to defeat former government ministers Bruno Le Maire and Herve Mariton — a margin that some analysts said was below expectations.

Still, the victory advances Sarkozy's hopes of running in the 2017 presidential race, and cements his return to the political scene after all but disappearing following his loss to Socialist Francois Hollande in the presidential election over two years ago.

The party, known as the UMP, will choose its presidential nominee in two years.

Nearly 270,000 dues-paying party members were eligible to vote on Saturday.

The online system used came under an "organized" cyberattack that temporarily slowed down voting, UMP secretary-general Luc Chatel told France-Info radio on Saturday. He said the party was filing legal action against the unidentified hackers behind the attack, and that police were investigating.

Sarkozy has used the UMP leadership as a springboard before: He also won it in 2004 — with 85 percent of the vote — and built a ground game that helped propel him to victory in the presidential race three years later.

Conservatives are sharpening their political knives. Polls show that Hollande is the least-popular French leader in modern history largely for his failed promise to bring down a double-digit unemployment rate.