PARIS (AP) — French far-right leader Marine Le Pen is standing trial over comments she made five years ago comparing Muslim street prayers to a foreign occupation.
Le Pen, whose National Front party is known for its anti-immigration and anti-Islam views, arrived Tuesday in court to be judged on charges of inciting racial hatred in Lyon, where she’ll face four anti-racism and human rights organizations.
“I have the right, as a political leader, to evoke a crucial issue and it’s even a duty for me to do it”, Marine Le Pen told reporters. She described herself as a victim of “judicial persecution”.
Her popularity on the rise in France, Le Pen faces up to a year in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros ($51,000). The court’s ruling is expected to be set to a later date.
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Despite the potential jail term, 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 sympathizers 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.
Marine Le Pen scores high in all popularity polls before regional elections in December. She’s 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 told The Associated Press. “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 antiracist and hostile to any kind of hatred speech,” 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.