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French prosecutor calls for hate speech charges against Marine Le Pen to be dropped

A public prosecutor has said the leader of France's National Front (FN), Marine Le Pen, should not face charges of hate speech. The call came hours after her trial began for comments made against Muslims in 2010.

Speaking at the high-profile trial in Lyon on Tuesday, French prosecutor Bernhard Reynaud said Le Pen's remarks can be deemed as "shocking," but "belong to freedom of speech."

Reynaud went on to say that Le Pen's charges for "incitement to discrimination over people's religious beliefs" should be dropped.

The charges against Le Pen center around comments made at a rally in Lyon five years ago on the issue of Muslim men and women praying on French streets.

"I am sorry, but for those who love to talk about World War II, and about the occupation, one could talk about this for once, because it is an occupation of the territory," Le Pen told a crowd of supporters.

"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."

As a penalty for the remarks, Le Pen was stripped of her European Parliament immunity in 2013. If

found guilty in the ongoing trial,

she also faces up to a year in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros ($51,000).

Growing support for FN

Many observers believe the trial will have little effect on her standing among FN supporters, however. The right-wing party has seen high levels of support ahead of regional elections in December, with polls suggesting that some candidates could win nearly 40 percent of the vote.

Arriving in court on Tuesday, Le Pen said the French government was using the judiciary to persecute her prior to the upcoming the elections.

"We are just a month ahead of the regional elections, and this case is five years old. Couldn't it wait another month?" she demanded.

Despite the FN's growing popularity, most political analysts believe, however, that while Le Pen could reach the runoff round of the 2017 French presidential election, it would be far harder for her to defeat the mainstream candidate and win the position.

ksb/jm (AFP, Reuters)

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