By Alexandria Sage
PARIS, March 6 (Reuters) - Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has given his strongest hint yet that he might make a comeback bid in 2017, telling a magazine a sense of duty to fix the economy might oblige him to run.
Sarkozy's remarks in the right-leaning weekly Valeurs Actuelles, due out on Thursday, will increase speculation he could return to politics - talk that has not abated since the conservative was ousted by Socialist Francois Hollande last May.
Despite promising then to quit politics for good, the 58-year-old was quoted last October as telling a friend he may have no choice but to run in the next election, causing a stir among his fans who see Hollande as anti-business.
The near-collapse of his centre-right UMP party which has split into two factions unable to decide on a leader, and a slump in Hollande's ratings as unemployment surges, have fuelled hopes on the right that Sarkozy could try for another term.
The former president said a lack of fresh ideas on how to fix France's problems from either the ruling Socialists or the UMP as it stands today could force his hand.
"Politics, that's over," Sarkozy was quoted as saying by the magazine. He said he would, however, be forced to act were France "caught between the extremism of the left and that of the right".
"There will unfortunately come a time when the question will no longer be 'Do you want to?' but 'Do you have the choice?'" Sarkozy said. "In that case, actually, I will be obliged to take it on. Not out of desire. Out of duty. Only because it's about France."
Since his defeat, Sarkozy has kept a low media profile, filling his time by vacationing and doing the rounds of the international conference circuit.
An Ifop poll on Wednesday found 56 percent of UMP voters rated Sarkozy as their top choice for a 2017 presidential run.
Among French voters as a whole, 35 percent hope for Sarkozy's return to politics, a BVA poll found last month.
In the interview, Sarkozy said Hollande had undone "everything I managed to build" with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the height of the euro zone crisis.
He also suggested Hollande had made an irresponsible choice to intervene militarily in Mali, where France is helping Malian forces drive back al Qaeda-linked insurgents.
Sarkozy questioned the wisdom of trying to "control a territory that's three times the size of France with 4,000 men".
"The rule is that you never go into a country that doesn't have a government," he said.
One of the defining moments of Sarkozy's presidency was his 2011 decision to spearhead the West's military campaign in Libya which culminated in the end of Muammar Gaddafi's dictatorship.
Last August, Sarkozy made a rare return to the media limelight to call for urgent international action to end the diplomatic stalemate in Syria.
Regarding France - where Hollande's ratings have been dragged down by a surge in jobless claims to a 15-year high as the economy stagnates - Sarkozy said the public's patience was wearing thin.
"We're heading towards serious events," Sarkozy said, citing a dearth of job creation and the decline of the auto industry.
"There will be a social crisis. Then we'll be caught with a financial crisis of an uncommon violence and it will end in political trouble," he said.
"You know, the French are not so much angry as scared." (Reporting by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Robin Pomeroy)