— With pugnacity and self-assurance, the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen defended herself in a courtroom 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.
She was in court under France’s tough hate-speech laws for the speech she made to supporters in this city five years ago, which touched on two of the most tender nerves in the French collective psyche: the Nazi occupation and the country’s relationship with its Muslims.
Nobody had yet so publicly compared the Muslim presence to the Nazis — an irony since many of her party’s founders had been active collaborators during World War II, some even fighting for the Germans — and the speech provoked an uproar, a slow-moving investigation by judicial authorities, and prodding by rights groups.
Locked in 2010 in a fierce battle for control of her anti-immigrant, xenophobic party, she delighted activists here then by launching into the subject of mass Muslim prayers in the street, mostly the result of insufficient mosque space.
“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 in 2010. “It’s an occupation of entire stretches of territory, of neighborhoods where religious law is applied. This is an occupation. Sure, there are no armored vehicles, no soldiers, but it’s still an occupation, and it weighs on the inhabitants.”
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 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.
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, 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 the panel of three judges to decide her guilt or innocence. And the presiding judge questioned her with skepticism at Tuesday’s hearing.
Ms. Le Pen’s party appears to be leading in several of France’s regions in elections to be held at the end of the year, and much of its campaign is based on anti-immigrant rhetoric.
The court hearing on Tuesday continued in that vein, and Ms. Le Pen had repeatedly said she was eager to appear at it.
The region where she is perhaps strongest, and where Ms. Le Pen herself is running, contains the mass encampment of migrants at Calais, now doubled in size to around 6,000, according to French authorities, and Ms. Le Pen is making the most of it.
“They are surfing on the wave. Everything touching on the defamation of Muslims bears fruit now,” said Khadija Aoudia, a Muslim rights lawyer present at the hearing. “There are candidates who are basing their electoral campaign wholly on stigmatizing the Muslim community.
“And the problem is, they are succeeding in seducing the electorate,” Ms. Aoudia added.
That much was evident in the yells of support and kisses Ms. Le Pen received after speaking in court. “We’re with you, Marine!” several shouted. A Frenchwoman of color in the courthouse hall was put in the category of “dogs, barbarians” by a white female National Front supporter who accosted her, according to French media.
Ms. Le Pen “was really great,” said Antoinette Lacroix, a middle-aged supporter who was in the audience at Tuesday’s hearing. “She was absolutely on the right line. And she is our next president.”
Ms. Aoudia said the prosecutor’s recommendation to acquit the National Front leader was “outrageous. He’s supposed to represent society, and he went rushing to the aid of the defense.”
Indeed, 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.
She again insisted she was not referring to the Nazi occupation in her 2010 remarks — an assertion belied by an explicit reference to World War II in what she said back then. Ms. Le Pen and her supporters often baldly deny remarks that appear clear in intent.
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.