France's Sarkozy mulling 2017 re-election bid - paper

* Sarkozy was beaten to presidency in May by Hollande

* Poll puts support for re-election bid at 53 percent

* Hollande popularity at new low after budget

By Nicholas Vinocur

PARIS, Oct 3 (Reuters) - Nicolas Sarkozy has told a friend he has "no choice" but to seek re-election to the French presidency in 2017, weekly paper Le Canard Enchaine reported on Wednesday, after saying he would quit politics following his election defeat in May.

Sarkozy has kept a low profile since losing to Socialist Francois Hollande and has made only one public statement, criticising his successor's policy on Syria.

"Given the disastrous shape France is likely to be in five years from now, I'll have no choice in 2017," Le Canard Enchaine quoted Sarkozy as telling one-time aide and former agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire.

"The question is not whether I come back but if I have the choice, morally speaking, of not coming back."

An aide to Le Maire, still a lawmaker, said he was not commenting on the report in Le Canard Enchaine, an irreverent and widely read source of political gossip.

Sarkozy, 57, has embraced a leisurely life since May, with holidays in Morocco and southern France as he considers his next step after decades in politics.

Friends have been quoted in the French media as saying Sarkozy has been busy perfecting his English in preparation for a push on the high-paying international speaking circuit.

His name is also cited frequently in the context of the contest for leadership of his centre-right UMP party, with lead candidates Jean-Francois Cope and former prime minister Francois Fillon both claiming allegiance to him.

In a reference to Sarkozy's influence, the cover of Le Point magazine this week featured a picture of him looking tanned and smiling with a few days' beard growth, under the headline: "Hello, I'm back!"

Despite record unpopularity as president, Sarkozy has been rising in the public's esteem, with an Ifop poll in August showing 53 percent support for him to run for president again.

Meanwhile, confidence in Hollande has fallen to a new low of 41 percent from 50 percent, according to a TNS Sofres poll published on Wednesday, after his government unveiled a budget packed with tax hikes and unemployment surged to a record level.

"Morally, I cannot eschew my obligations to the French," Le Canard Enchaine quoted Sarkozy as saying.

If he does seek re-election, Sarkozy would be the first president to do so in non-consecutive terms.

His wife, former top model Carla Bruni, is meanwhile making a tentative return to her singing career on a TV show, a year after the birth of the couple's daughter.

(Editing by Catherine Bremer and Alison Williams)

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