Nicolas Sarkozy has given his strongest indication so far that he plans to return to politics and fight 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 the choice. It's destiny. Destiny," Mr Sarkozy has told friends and political allies, according to Le Point, a weekly magazine. The comments came as a poll in Le Figaro showed that the Right-wing former president is nearly twice as popular as Mr Hollande, with 46 per cent of voters saying they would like him as head of state and 27 per cent choosing the Socialist.
Since his defeat in the 2012 presidential election, 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 friends and allies regularly relay his words to the media.
Mr Sarkozy has lately taken to attending his singer wife Carla Bruni's concerts, where thrilled audiences greet him with chants of "Nicolas, Nicolas" and "Get out Hollande". He has also dropped hints that he might return to rescue "suffering France" from the economic crisis he blames on Mr Hollande, 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 55-year-old Mr Sarkozy refused to travel in the 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 party that would eschew the traditional divisions 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 mean he could avoid a UMP primary to select the party's candidate for 2017. Bruno Jeanbart, of the polling company OpinionWay, said the prospect of Mr Sarkozy moving back into the Elysee Palace was 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 investigations could prevent him from becoming the first defeated French president to take a second shot at the highest office.
Magistrates in October abandoned an inquiry into 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 the 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.