UMP leaders had been summoned to a crisis meeting in response to a ruling by France’s constitutional court that Sarkozy had broken the rules during last year’s presidential election campaign, depriving the party of an 11-million-euro state subsidy to its campaign costs.
But Sarkozy only made a passing reference to the “serious and unprecedented” situation, tellling party members that they have an “obligation to remain united” for the sake of the French people.
He went on to talk about Europe, immigration and a “crisis of political ideas” in the 21st century.
The meeting was closed to the public and press but dozens of well-wishers greeted the former president as he arrived at the UMP's Paris headquarters.
Opinion polls show Sarkozy is more popular with potential UMP voters than current party leader Jean-François Copé or his rival former prime minister François Fillon.
Shortly after the meeting he tweeted that the speech did not signal a return to active politics but adding that, should he do so, he will address the French people and not just his party.
“He even said it, ‘This is not the time for presidential elections’, but oddly enough this meeting felt a lot like the beginning of an election campaign,” commented UMP MP Pierre Lellouche.
“I don't consider this to be the beginning of Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign but it does look a lot like his return to politics, especially when you know the man,” Lellouche told RFI.
Fillon has already declared that he hopes to run for the presidency in 2017, as have two other UMP members, Xavier Bertrand and Bruno Le Maire.
Copé on Tuesday insisted that “nobody imagines that we are in 2017 today”, insisting that the party should concentrate on next year’s municipal elections.
Sympathisers had already sent in 2.7 million euros online and Sarkozy had made the maximum authorised donation of 7,500 euros to tackle the UMP’s financial crisis, he told Europe 1 radio.
Current President François Hollande’s Socialist Party was quick to slam Sarkozy’s speech.
“You have to have all the arrogance of Nicolas Sarkozy to aspire to base a political comeback on the fact of having ruined one’s party and ruined France,” commented party leader Harlem Désir.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls dubbed the move a “fake comeback” and claimed UMP leaders’ criticism of the Constitutional Council’s decision undermined the rule of law.