French far right leader Marine Le Pen on trial over Muslim prayer comments
Published 20/10/2015 | 13:31
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen has gone on trial over comments she made five years ago comparing Muslim street prayers to a foreign occupation.
At the end of the hearing, the public prosecutor asked for the case to be dismissed on the basis of freedom of expression. The court's ruling is expected on December 15.
Le Pen, whose National Front party is known for its anti-immigration and anti-Islam views, has been charged with inciting racial hatred in Lyon, where she faced four anti-racism and human rights organisations.
"I have the right, as a political leader, to evoke a crucial issue and it's even a duty for me to do it," Le Pen told reporters when she arrived at the court.
Le Pen, whose popularity is on the rise in France, could face up to a year in prison and a fine of 45,000 euro (£33,000).
Political experts say she could emerge from the trial even stronger among many National Front voters.
Le Pen's litigious comments referred to Muslims praying on the street outside mosques when they are full.
"That actually is the occupation of territory," she told a crowd of sympathisers in Lyon in 2010.
In France, "occupation" is the generic term used to refer to the period of administration by the Nazis of French territory.
In July 2013, Le Pen was stripped of her European Parliament immunity over the comments.
She scores high in all popularity polls before regional elections in December and is hoping to win votes in the context of Europe's migrant crisis - what she calls a "migratory submersion".
"I think that acting as a victim as she does is going to be more useful than bad (to her image)," historian Jean Garrigues said. "We can see that this theme of an invasion that could be related to an occupation, it works. It does have a political efficiency."
Political analyst Thomas Guenole said Le Pen's trial wouldn't be problematic to the majority of National Front voters who share far right or very conservative views.
But Le Pen has been trying in recent years to increase her electorate with people from the left, based on the argument of an opposition to Europe's economic policy.
"To them, her comments are a big problem ... because they are resolutely anti-racist and hostile to any kind of hatred speech," Mr Guenole said.
Le Pen has tried to soften the party's image since she took over from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011.
She kicked her father out of the party he founded this summer, after he repeated his view that the Nazi gas chambers were merely a "detail" of history.