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PARIS — A little over a year after he declared he would leave politics for good, France's Nicolas Sarkozy is back in the spotlight.
The combative ex-president attended a meeting of his troubled UMP party Monday where he was welcomed like a star. It could mark his first step toward candidacy in the next presidential election in 2017.
The 58-year-old Sarkozy had not made a political appearance since he lost the presidency to Socialist Francois Hollande in May 2012, after just one term in office. He also had not attended a UMP party meeting since 2007, when he was elected president. Some 800 UMP politicians were invited to Monday's event, closed to the media.
He spoke for half an hour about democratic pluralism, European issues such as the economic crisis, and French competitiveness. "This is not my political comeback. The day I will speak again, that will be to speak to the French about France," Sarkozy said, according to the extracts published on his official Twitter account.
His supporters clearly regarded his comment about the future as good news. As Sarkozy left the UMP headquarters in Paris, they chanted "Nicholas, president," and he thanked them.
"That was a very important message, of friendship and solidarity with our political family," said party leader Jean-Francois Cope.
Last year, Sarkozy said that if voted out of office, he would "completely change my life. You won't hear from me." He later explained he aspired to a new life with his wife, singer and former model Carla Bruni, and their now-18-month-old daughter Giulia.
But much has changed since then.
Sarkozy appears to be rejoining the political fray because of the embarrassing state his old party finds itself in.
His party, France's center-right Union for a Popular Movement, faced a farcical election for a new leader last year that left it badly divided.
And now it's on the edge of bankruptcy, swamped with debts after the Constitutional Court last week ruled that he exceeded the legal funding limit during the 2012 presidential race.
That decision prevents the UMP from being reimbursed half its campaign expenses by the state. That means Sarkozy's party is left with an 11 million euro ($14 million) bill, pushing its overall debt to more than 50 million euros.
The ruling has galvanized the party's followers. Cope announced that more than 2 million euros had been raised since the party launched an appeal for donations last week.
As soon as the Constitutional Council published its decision, Sarkozy announced in a statement that he would no longer serve in the court, so that he could regain his "freedom of speech." All former presidents are automatically designated members of the court, for life.
The next day, he posted a Facebook message: "This unprecedented situation ... jeopardizes the party, which must prepare the change in power that is needed after socialism... I must assume my responsibilities by committing to the guarantee of free democratic expression in our country."
Sarkozy's message very carefully avoids evoking the next 2017 presidential election — never suggesting that he could be a candidate. But the option is in the mind of UMP supporters, among whom he is still immensely popular.
Sarkozy's allies have tried to calm down the frenzy on French newspapers, radios and televisions.
"I don't believe that this meeting is the sign of a return to politics," said Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who was Sarkozy's spokeswoman during 2012 presidential campaign. "His eventual decision to return must be very personal. It shouldn't in any case be dictated by outside events, whatever they might be."
On his comeback trail, Sarkozy has at least one competitor in in own camp: His former prime minister, Francois Fillon, has indicated his interest in being the UMP's candidate for 2017.
An IFOP survey published Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche shows most respondents don't want Sarkozy to run for president in 2017. But the same survey says most expect him to.
Meanwhile, Hollande has plumbed new depths of unpopularity, with only 1 in 4 French people approving of his performance, according to the latest polls.
Far-right party leader Marine Le Pen — who came in a strong third in the 2012 elections and drew support from some UMP followers — said she is "not worried" about Sarkozy's possible return.
Sarkozy also faces legal issues that could stand in the way of his return.
He is under investigation on suspicion of abusing the mental weakness of France's wealthiest woman, the octogenarian L'Oreal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt. Three investigating magistrates formally accused him in March of defrauding her to finance his 2007 presidential campaign.
Sarkozy's name also appears in another scandal, in which business tycoon and Sarkozy ally Bernard Tapie, 70, has been accused of taking part in a conspiracy to defraud the French state in 2008 — under Sarkozy's presidency.