M. Continuo

Sarkozy says would compete for 2017 French presidential nomination

PARIS (Reuters) - Nicolas Sarkozy would compete to win a centre-right party nomination as candidate for France's 2017 presidential election, he said on Thursday, ending speculation that he might call off a party primary.

The former president, who lost a re-election bid to Socialist President Francois Hollande in May 2012, announced last week that he would seek the leadership of the main rightist UMP party ahead of the next presidential race.

His former prime minister and foreign minister had warned that Sarkozy would be heading into a "hard conflict" if, as UMP leader, he were to cancel the primary race, in which party members vote to choose a candidate for the presidency.

"There will be (UMP) primaries," Sarkozy said during a speech to supporters in the town of Lambersart in northern France. "With my personality, who could have thought that things would go differently?"

With European Union and French flags behind him, Sarkozy struck a presidential tone in a 50-minute speech interrupted by frequent applause and shouts of "Nicolas! Nicolas!", and ending with the 'Marseillaise' national anthem.

Sarkozy started on a solemn tone, calling for a minute of silence to mark the killing of a French hostage by Islamist militants in Algeria, before he turned to sarcastic criticism of Hollande's presidency.

"Halfway through his term, the least we can say is that it's a flawless performance," he said. "We were expecting the worst. At least on that point we weren't disappointed."

Taking aim at his successor, whose now ex-companion Valerie Trierweiler recently published a tell-all book, Sarkozy accused Hollande of failing to live up to all his campaign promises of being a 'normal' president.

Earlier this week, in his first televised interview since announcing his return to politics, Sarkozy said he would change the tax system to help companies and pledged to win back National Front voters one by one.

(Reporting by Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Hugh Lawson)