The leader of the French nationalist and eurosceptic National Front political party, Marine Le Pen, faces a year in prison and a 45,000 euros fine for criticizing Muslims.
The state considers Len Pen’s remarks about Muslims praying in the streets to be hate speech and has accused her of “inciting discrimination, violence or hatred toward a group of people based on their religious beliefs.”
France has one of the toughest hate speech laws in Europe. The law has been used against journalists, authors, filmmakers, newspapers and periodicals, including the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. In January Islamic terrorists stormed the office of Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people.
“I’m sorry, but for those who like talking a lot about World War II, if it comes to talking about the occupation, we can talk about it, because that (Muslims praying on the street) is the occupation of territory,” she said in 2010.
“It is an occupation of part of the territory, suburbs where religious law is applied. Sure, there are no armored vehicles, no soldiers, but it is an occupation nonetheless and it weighs on residents.”
Muslim groups filed a complaint under France’s hate speech laws and demanded Le Pen be investigated and prosecuted.
Le Pen was protected by parliamentary immunity until 2013 when the European Parliament removed her legal safeguard and human rights groups pushed for prosecution.
“I have committed no crime,” Le Pen told the media as she entered a courthouse in Lyon, a city in southeastern France.
Prosecutors in the case have asked that the nationalist leader be acquitted.
“Mrs. Le Pen, by denouncing these prayers in the public space, which did not refer to the entire Muslim community but to a minority, only exercised her freedom of expression,” prosecutor Bernard Reynaud told the court.
The National Front is popular in northern France, particularly in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region near the English Channel where gangs of illegal migrants have repeatedly attempted to break into the Eurotunnel terminal at Calais and reach Britain.