France's far-right party leader Marine Le Pen should not be convicted for comments comparing Muslim street prayers to Nazi occupation, a public prosecutor said on Tuesday. The National Front (FN) leader's comments can be considered as "shocking" but "belong to freedom of speech," prosecutor Bernard Reynaud said at the high profile trial, calling for the charges to be dropped.
Le Pen, who polls suggest will win a regional election in December, has sought to rid the FN of its anti-Semitic image and make it more appealing to mainstream voters since she took over in 2011 from her maverick father and party founder Jean-Marie. But in 2010, Marine Le Pen - whose party still thrives on concerns over immigration and radical Islam - came under fire for criticizing Muslims praying in the streets when mosques are full. "I'm sorry, but for those who really like to talk about World War Two, if we're talking about occupation, we could talk about that (street prayers), because that is clearly an occupation of the territory," she told a rally in Lyon. "It is an occupation of sections of the territory, of neighborhoods in which religious law applies, it is an occupation. There are no tanks, there are no soldiers, but it is an occupation anyhow, and it weighs on people."
She has been charged with "incitement to discrimination over people's religious beliefs" for those comments. "She crossed the red line of what is acceptable in a democratic debate," Alain Jakubowicz, the head of anti-racism group Licra, told BFM TV. On Tuesday, Le Pen said the government was using the judiciary to persecute her. "We are just a month ahead of the regional elections and this case is five years old. Couldn't it wait another month?" she told reporters as she arrived at the tribunal. The case has had many twists and turns and had initially been put aside by judges in December but anti-racism groups filed a new complaint. It was unclear when a ruling would be made. Judges are free to decide whether or not to follow the prosecutor's recommendations.
Since the Syrian refugee crisis erupted, support for far-right parties across Europe has been strengthened, most notably France's National Front, Germany's Alternative for Germany and Austria's Freedom Party. Earlier in October, the Freedom Party achieved a record result in regional elections over growing concerns about Europe's refugee crisis. Recent surveys suggest that support for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who resisted pressure from some in her own party to harden her position on refugees, has been eroded fast and has fallen to its lowest since May 2013. Last week in Switzerland, the anti-immigration Swiss People's Party (SVP) also won the biggest share of the vote in the parliamentary elections. And the continuing rise of public backing for anti-immigration National Front leader Marine Le Pen in France has also highlighted this trend.
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