French court clears Le Pen of charges after she compared Muslim street prayer to occupation

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A French court on Tuesday acquitted French far-right leader Marine Le Pen of incitement to hatred, a charge leveled after she compared Muslim street prayers to a foreign occupation.

A court in Lyon followed the prosecution's demand that Le Pen, who made the remark five years ago, be cleared, according to her lawyer, David Dassa-Le Deist.

The ruling, delivered in writing, came two days after Le Pen's anti-immigration National Front party gained a record number of votes but still suffered a stinging defeat in France's regional election.

Four anti-racism associations had filed a complaint after Le Pen said in a 2010 political rally in the southeast city of Lyon that Muslim street prayers could be compared to the Nazi occupation of France. Le Pen had faced up to a year in prison and a 45,000-euro ($50,000) fine if convicted. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has been convicted several times of the same charge but never imprisoned.

"For those who like to talk about the Second World War, if we're talking about occupation, we can talk ...," she said at the 2010 rally. "This (street prayer) is an occupation of parts of territory, neighborhoods ... Certainly, there are no tanks, no soldiers, but it is nevertheless an occupation."

The court ruled that Le Pen had committed no hate offense because she made no specific reference to Muslims. The prosecutor had requested acquittal on grounds of freedom of expression.

During her Oct. 20 trial, Le Pen said she was "interested in dealing with the problems of the French and not with references to the past or history, 70 years ago."

"Street prayers are illegal. It is a way to corner ... a territory in order to impose a religious law there. I am within my rights, as a political leader, to discuss a fundamental issue," she said.

In 2013, the European Parliament voted to lift the immunity of Le Pen, a European lawmaker, paving the way for the legal proceedings in Lyon.