SAINT-ANDRE-LEZ-LILLE, France (Reuters) - Former President Nicolas Sarkozy courted supporters of France's far right Front National party on Friday in a speech laced with references to French identity and values but in which he stopped short of launching his bid for re-election next year.
Reviving the divisive theme of national identity that helped propel the head of the Les Republicains party to power in 2007 but turned voters off five years later, Sarkozy said French culture was dissolving because of cowardly leaders.
"It wasn't that long ago that when we talked about immigration, identity and removing citizenship we were called fascists," Sarkozy said. "But minds have changed, the masses are rising, the people are standing up and they are saying louder and louder 'that's enough'."
The speech by 61-year-old Sarkozy, a figure both loved and loathed among right-wing voters, will be interpreted by many as the precursor to a widely-anticipated run for another term at the Elysee presidential palace.
Touching on topics that will resonate with potential voters for Front National leader Marine Le Pen, Sarkozy's conservative views on French society set him apart from Alain Juppe, his more moderate rival for the Les Republicains party ticket whose focus has been on the economy and who leads Sarkozy in opinion polls.
A series of militant strikes and foiled attacks on French soil, Europe's immigration crisis, high unemployment and a deep disaffection with the political elite among voters have fanned support for the Front National.
Le Pen would poll higher in the first round of next May's presidential election than other likely candidates including Sarkozy, Juppe and France's current leader, Francois Hollande, according to opinion polls.
A close aide to Sarkozy said the speech aimed to lay down the former head of state's view on "what being French is about."
Shortly after the November attacks on Paris that killed 130 people, Sarkozy said multiculturalism had left western democracies vulnerable to Islamist militants and that French identity was being erased.
France's five-million-strong Muslim minority, Europe's largest, makes up about 8 percent of the population. Two-thirds of them are French citizens.
On Wednesday, in front of conservative lawmakers and supporters in the northern town of Andre-lez-Lille, Sarkozy said that political correctness meant the French were being forced to adapt to the cultural norms of immigrants.
"Integration has come to mean the majority adapts to the minority, accepts their language, values and morals," Sarkozy said, echoing the rhetoric of his past presidential campaigns.
"Why in a multicultural society does every one have the right to be different, everyone except the majority, everyone but the people?"
Reporting by Pierre Savary; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Toby Chopra