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My users are going nuts because of this very inconsistent behaviour.
The tenant has enabled "Open Documents in Client Applications by Default" in their website collection. This setting works fine for as long as the users open a document from a document library directly. However, when a document is opened from inside a highlighted content webpart, it always opens in web view.
I've tried to write a script that intercepts the href-links created by the highlighted content webpart and modifies the target, so the documents open in the respective client application. However, this only works if the highlighted content webpart is in list mode, as it does not create any href tags in its other display modes.
This behaviour is utterly frustrating and very inconsistent to the point it should be classified as a bug in the highlighted content webpart.