Adam Nossiter, New York Times, October 20, 2015
With pugnacity and self-assurance, the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen defended herself in a courtroom on Tuesday against charges of inciting religious hatred against Muslims, provoking cheers of “France for the French” from supporters in the courthouse halls afterward.
Drawing on French anxiety over the migrant surge in the east, an electoral campaign in which Ms. Le Pen’s National Front is seen as having momentum, and her own charisma, she turned what was meant as an accusatory stage into a full-throated platform for her views.
The context was unusual, but the hard line taken by the populist leader was not: France’s Muslim immigrants are an alien force threatening French values.
Far from being a provocation, at Tuesday’s hearing she described a notorious speech she made five years ago comparing Muslim street prayers to the Nazi occupation as an “exhortation to respect the law” on behalf of “those who have been abandoned, the forgotten ones.”
“There are people with police-style armbands at these prayers,” Ms. Le Pen continued. “I’m scandalized. This is an abandonment by the state.”
Human rights lawyers–France’s court proceedings allow their intervention–tried to challenge her, but Ms. Le Pen, a skillful lawyer herself, batted them away.
Anti-racism and Muslim rights groups filed a complaint and demanded an investigation. But it took the lifting of her parliamentary immunity by the European Parliament in 2013 for the case to move forward, spurred on by the human rights groups.
When the case finally came to trial on Tuesday–a final judgment is expected on Dec. 15, and Ms. Le Pen could face a fine of over $50,000 and up to a year in prison–it did so at an ideal moment for the political leader.
On Tuesday evening, the state prosecutor recommended that Ms. Le Pen be acquitted, saying she was simply exercising her right to free speech. She was not speaking “of the whole Muslim community” in her 2010 speech, the prosecutor, Bernard Reynaud, said, “but only a minority.”
But his words are not the end of the affair under France’s multiparty justice system, as it is ultimately up to a panel of three judges to decide her guilt or innocence. And the presiding judge questioned her with skepticism at Tuesday’s hearing.
Mr. Reynaud’s conclusions echoed Ms. Le Pen’s angry rebuttal to one of the rights advocates at the hearing: “What you are doing is trying to prevent people from expressing themselves freely,” she said.
Whether Ms. Le Pen needed the prosecutor’s help was not clear. She was an aggressive and confident advocate for herself, lecturing the courtroom as her lawyer sat silent.
As she often does, Ms. Le Pen portrayed herself as the rampart against what she depicted as a state capitulating in the face of an alien invasion.
And despite her party’s association with World War II collaboration, she described her role as that of a resister, subtly brushing away the longtime taint.
“I am the spirit of resistance, against what I consider to be the collapse of the state,” she said at Tuesday’s hearing.