French far-right leader acquitted of inciting hatred

PARIS • A French court has acquitted far-right leader Marine Le Pen of charges that she incited religious hatred against Muslims with comments made in 2010.

Ms Le Pen, now the president of the National Front (FN), was on trial for comparing Muslims praying in the street to the German occupation of France during World War II at a rally in Lyon, comments that prompted anti-racism and Muslim rights groups to file complaints.

She was facing a fine of €45,000 (S$69,500) and up to a year in prison. But judges in Lyon on Tuesday followed the state prosecutor's recommendation that Ms Le Pen be acquitted of charges of "inciting discrimination, violence or hatred towards a group of people based on their religious beliefs".

During the trial in October, prosecutor Bernard Reynaud argued that Ms Le Pen was only exercising her right to free speech because she was not targeting all Muslims in France, only a portion of them.

Ms Le Pen reacted to the ruling with a post on her official Twitter account, saying: "Five years of aspersions, one acquittal... And now how many slanderers will apologise?"

Ms Le Pen was campaigning for control of FN when she made the comments about Muslims praying in the streets, which was mostly the result of insufficient mosque space, at the 2010 rally in Lyon.

"If you want to talk about the occupation, let's talk about that, by the way, because here we are talking about the occupation of our space," she said at the rally. "It's an occupation of entire stretches of territory, of neighbourhoods where religious law is applied. This is an occupation. Sure, there are no armoured vehicles, no soldiers, but it's still an occupation..."

The FN failed to win any contests in the second and final round of regional elections on Sunday, but its anti-immigrant, anti-European Union and anti-Muslim positions have garnered strong support from a segment of the French electorate.

Ms Le Pen used the trial, held just six weeks before the first round of the elections, as a platform to defend those positions, describing her 2010 comments as an "exhortation to respect the law" on behalf of "those who have been abandoned, the forgotten ones".

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2015, with the headline 'French far-right leader acquitted of inciting hatred'. Print Edition | Subscribe