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Nicolas Sarkozy, former head of the Les Republicains political party, attends a political rally in Franconville, France, as he campaigns for the French conservative presidential primary, September 19, 2016. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

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PARIS (Reuters) - Conservative presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy has said immigrants granted French citizenship should know "their ancestors are the Gauls", a pitch to woo voters away from the far right National Front.

In the race for his centre-right party's nomination, the outspoken former president, whose abrasive style alienated many voters during his 2007-2012 term, said all immigrants should "live like the French" if they wish to stay in France.

Sarkozy is hitting hard the themes of security, immigration and national identity in campaigning at a time France reels from a wave of Islamist militant and attacks and Europe struggles to find a coherent response to the ongoing migrant crisis.

"If you want to become French, you speak French, you live like the French and you don't try and change a way of life that has been ours for so many years," Sarkozy told supporters in the northern Paris suburb of Franconville on Monday night.

"Once you are French your ancestors are the Gauls," Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, continued.

'Your ancestors are the Gauls' is an old maxim which French school children used to parrot in history class and which became a symbol of France's empire when recited by pupils across francophone Africa.

Sarkozy's comments drew derision from his right-wing rivals and Socialist opponents, who branded the hyper-active politician for being out of touch with modern-day France.

"I'm smiling. I'm smiling just a little bit," his main rival for the Republican party ticket, former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, told France Info radio. "We're not all the same, we need to respect diversity."

"Do we have to give Mr Sarkozy a history lesson," quipped Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem on iTele. "Yes there are Gauls among our ancestors. But there are also Romans, Normans, Celts, Nicois, Corsicans, Arabs, Italians, Spanish. That's France."

Islamist militants have killed more than 230 people since the beginning of 2015, straining relations with France's Muslim population, the largest in Europe. A ban on burkinis by some towns this summer highlighted secular France's distrust for public expression of religious faith.

While France's top administrative court overturned the ban in one town, Sarkozy, who projects himself as a defender of French values, promises to change the constitution and introduce a nationwide burkini ban.

"I will not accept medieval behaviour that wants men to bathe in trunks when women are locked up" in burkinis, he said.

(Reporting by Gerard Bon and Richard Lough; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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