sarko superman
Nicolas Sarkozy drops strongest hint yet he will make a presidential comeback in 2017, as new opinion poll shows him almost twice as popular as Francois Hollande

Nicolas Sarkozy has given his strongest indication so far that he plans to return to politics and battle Francois Hollande for the French presidency in 2017.

"The question is not to know if I want or don't want to return. I cannot not return. I don't have a choice. It's destiny. Destiny," he has told friends and political allies, according to Thursday's edition of Le Point weekly magazine.

The comments came as a new opinion poll in Le Figaro showed that the rightwing ex-president is far more popular than Mr Hollande, with 46 per cent of voters saying they would like to have Mr Sarkozy as head of state and just 27 per cent plumping for the Socialist.

Since his defeat in 2012, Mr Sarkozy has gone on the lucrative global lecture circuit and has talked about getting into business. He rarely speaks to the press but his allies and friends regularly relay his words to the media.

The 58-year-old has lately taken to attending his singer wife Carla Bruni's concerts on her comeback tour, where thrilled audiences greet him with chants of "Nicolas, Nicolas" and "Get out Hollande".

But he also drops the occasional hint that he might return to rescue "suffering France" from the economic crisis he blames on the deeply unpopular Socialist president, whom he has reportedly described as a "totally crap" leader.

The two politicians do little to hide their mutual disdain. They both flew to South Africa this week to attend Nelson Mandela's memorial service but in separate aircraft, reportedly after Mr Sarkozy refused to travel in back seats of the presidential plane.

Mr Hollande, 59, suffered a minor embarrassment after the ceremony when he had to ask his predecessor where his plane was, only to be told with a smile that it was "Over there", right in front of him.

Mr. Sarkozy has recently let it be known that he may form a new party that would eschew the traditional cleavages of left and right.

That would enable him to escape from the mess of his current UMP party, which is bitterly divided, threatened by the rise of the far-right Front National, and unable to capitalise on the record unpopularity of the Socialist government.

It would also let him avoid a UMP primary to select the party's candidate for 2017.

Bruno Jeanbart of polling firm OpinionWay said the prospect of Mr Sarkozy moving back into the Elysee is real.

"If the current situation persists, with Francois Hollande remaining a very unpopular president, and the Front National remaining a real threat, his chances could be strong," he said.

But he said various ongoing investigations could prevent him from becoming the first defeated French president to take a second shot at the highest office.

Magistrates in October abandoned a party funding probe against Mr Sarkozy for allegedly soliciting secret campaign financing from France's richest woman.

But he faces scrutiny in other cases, including the "Karachi Affair", a corruption case linked to arms sales and a deadly bombing in Pakistan in 2002, and a case involving allegations of influence peddling in an arbitration payout to business tycoon Bernard Tapie.

If he does emerge unscathed, he will have to time his comeback well.

"Today he appears to be in a favourable position because there is a void that was created on the right because of his absence and nobody has filled that void," said Mr Jeanbart, adding that if he waits too long someone else might emerge as a unifier of conservative voters.

Ségolène Royal, Mr Hollande's former partner and Mr Sarkozy's defeated rival in the 2007 presidential race, meanwhile said Thursday when asked if she wanted run again for the presidency: "You never say never in politics".