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 Saturday's vote by party members. The victory advances his hopes of running in the 2017 presidential race.

The 59-year-old Gaullist collected 64.5 percent of the vote to defeat former government ministers Bruno Le Maire and Herve Mariton.

Sarkozy has re-emerged on the political scene in recent months after all but disappearing following his loss to Socialist Francois Hollande in the 2012 election.

The party, known as the UMP, will choose its presidential nominee in 2016.