BERLIN (Reuters) - In his first major speech since losing the French presidency in 2012, Nicolas Sarkozy weighed in on euro zone integration, the Ukraine conflict and the risks of weak leadership in Europe to an adoring crowd of fellow conservatives in Berlin.
Despite promising to leave politics for good after his bitter defeat to Socialist Francois Hollande, Sarkozy has since hinted he may return "out of duty". Polls show he is the clear favorite among right-wing voters to run for president in 2017.
Before speaking at a Konrad Adenauer Foundation event on Pariser Platz near the Brandenburg Gate, he paid a visit to Angela Merkel in the Chancellery.
The meeting was initially scheduled to last 30 minutes but ended up dragging on for over an hour, an unusual amount of time for the German leader to devote to a former politician from an opposition party.
In what Hollande's entourage may also view as a slap in the face, official pictures of the meeting were released, showing the duo, known by the symbiotic moniker "Merkozy" during the height of the euro crisis, grinning and chatting amiably in Merkel's office overlooking the Reichstag.
Merkel, whose Christian Democrats (CDU) are natural allies with Sarkozy's conservative UMP, controversially refused to meet Hollande during the French election campaign.
Sarkozy, 59, made no mention of his left-wing nemesis in his half hour speech, but appeared intent on contrasting his relationship with Merkel and reputation as a bold leader against the record of his successor, whose ties to the German leader are less warm and whose hesitant start in office has sent his poll ratings to record lows.
"During the crisis, Europe needed leadership. Leadership is not a bad word, it's an obligation. And when you are scared to lead, you are not fulfilling your responsibilities," Sarkozy said.
A day after Merkel paid a visit to British Prime Minister David Cameron, Sarkozy also had a message for European Union countries that were not prepared to join the single currency bloc, arguing for a stronger, more integrated euro zone and a less ambitious EU that limited itself to "the bare essentials".
"We need more integration in the Europe that shares the euro, less integration in the Europe of 28," he said, referring to the broader bloc's member states.
Amid a deep political crisis in Ukraine, Sarkozy urged Europe to offer the former Soviet republic, along with Belarus, Georgia and Russia, a "new framework" for cooperation, cautioning the West against a "catastrophic" clash with Moscow.
"Nothing would be worse than an unnecessary confrontation with Russia," said Sarkozy, whose speech was interrupted by applause several times. "I think in Berlin one understands this better than anywhere else in the world."
After keeping a low profile in the year-and-a-half after his election defeat, Sarkozy has begun appearing in public again this year.
He has attended concerts by his wife Carla Bruni, the singer-songwriter and ex-supermodel, and showed up earlier this month at a campaign event for Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, his former spokeswoman who is running for Paris mayor.
In a recent article in French daily Le Monde, members of his entourage described him as a "caged lion", desperate to return to the political stage.
Some expressed concern that he could hurt his own chances by launching his comeback prematurely. The next French vote is more than three years away.
But Sarkozy was paying those voices no mind in Berlin, clearly reveling in the attention, as photographers lined up like paparazzi and hundreds thronged into the Allianz Forum next to the French embassy where he spoke.
Editing by Philippa Fletcher