Marine Le Pen trial
French National Front political party leader Marine Le Pen speaks to journalists as she leaves the courthouse in Lyon, France on 20 October 2015.REUTERS / Emmanuel Foudrot

It was not a surprise to see far-right leader Marine Le Pen arrive at her court hearing to answer for the offences of provoking racial hatred on Tuesday (20 October). Her lawyer, David Dassa-Le Deist, could have represented her, but commentators in France say Front National (FN) leader deliberately decided to appear to promote her party campaign based on anti-immigrant arguments, ahead of the regional elections held on 6 and 13 December.

Le Pen - a lawyer - was defending herself against charges of inciting religious hatred against Muslims after she compared Muslim street prayers to wartime Nazi occupation of France in the 1940s, during a 2010 rally in Lyon.

"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 five years ago. "It's an occupation of entire stretches of territory, of neighbourhoods where religious law is applied. This is an occupation. Sure, there are no armoured vehicles, no soldiers, but it's still an occupation, and it weighs on the inhabitants."

On the Front National campaign trail

Le Pen had desperately tried to distance herself from the anti-Semitic rhetoric of her father and FN party founder, Jean-Marie, after she took the reigns of Front National in 2011. Earlier this year, the patriarch was ousted from the FN after he gave a radio interview in which he repeated claims that the Nazi gas chambers were "a detail of history", as well as praising the French wartime leader and collaborator Marshal Petain, who he claimed was unfairly maligned.

In the courthouse halls, Le Pen (accompanied by the head of the electoral mission in Paca region, Christophe Boudot) used every opportunity to draw on French anxiety over the migrant crisis.

Witnesses described how she used the court hearing as a platform for her views in front of many FN supporters who cheered "We're with you, Marine", "France to the French", or "Long live France, No more Burqas".

The anti-immigrant arguments were embodied by a sympathiser who called a Frenchwoman of color "dog" and "barbarian" in the courthouse, according to local media. The coloured woman had approached the FN supporter, showing her French National identity card, saying: "I am French and proud to be".

According to local reports, the blonde woman answered: "France has always given, and never been racist (...) We not going to accept all the migrants. You are dogs, barbarians; there have been slaughters on French soil".

In September, it emerged that Le Pen may have been using a fake Twitter account to discretely convey her party's message.

Marine Le Pen and the migrant crisis
Commentators say FN leader Marine Le Pen is using every opportunity to draw on French anxiety over the migrant crisis, ahead of upcoming electionsREUTERS / Pascal Rossignol

Attacking the ruling Socialist party

Arriving at her trial in Lyon, Le Pen also said she was the victim of "judicial persecution and accused President Francois Hollande's Socialist (PS) party for setting up her court date ahead of upcoming elections.

"Does this (trial) schedule not surprise you? We are a month away from the regional elections (but) this case was five years ago. I don't wish to comply with the judicial offensive of the government."

While Le Pen might only have her final judgement on 15 December, her anti-immigration party is already rumoured to be triumphing in a number of French regions, including the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur (Paca), Nord, and Grand Est.

In a speech outside the court, Le Pen also targeted the anti-racism and Muslim rights groups that filed the complaint, describing them as an "armed wing of the political power". Le Pen, who could face up to a year in prison and a fine of €45,000 added: "[The organisations] have a political engagement that they express at every elections."

The state prosecutor, meanwhile, recommended that Le Pen be acquitted, saying she was simply exercising her right to "free speech".

Presidential hopes

Her comments come a day after Hollande told RTL radio he was worried about the FN breakthroughs in those regions.

"A region that could be governed by the Front National, that would have consequences. I prefer mentioning it (now) so that there are no surprises, so that everyone is well informed. We don't play with this kind of behaviour or vote simply to send a warning message because we are not happy, or because we're angry," he said, referring to the possibility of sanction votes. "Every citizen must be responsible".

Le Pen is also hoping to improve her chances of winning the 2017 presidential election. Last week, the speaker of the National Assembly, Claude Bartolone of Hollande's PS, and Hervé Morin, leader of the New Center party, both declared they expected to see Le Pen in the second round of elections. Out of the five voting-intention surveys conducted in 2015, ahead of the 2017 elections, three have put Marine Le Pen ahead in the polls.