By Siraj Datoo
Marine Le Pen’s immunity as an MEP was lifted earlier this month, meaning that she can now be charged for incitement to racial hatred.
Amongst a series of controversial incidents, the French state prosecutor in Lyon, wishes to specifically charge the leader of the far-right Front National (FN) over a speech she gave in December 2010, when she alluded that Muslim prayers in the streets were similar to the Nazi occupation of France. This very deliberate act of evoking haunting memories of this period – and the shame of French involvement in the Vichy regime – were not lost on anyone.
Yet the reality is that even if found guilty and imprisoned for a year, it is unlikely her party will lose much support.
That François Hollande has a lower popularity rating than Le Pen is now fairly old news – new polls emerge in French newspapers and magazines on a bimonthly basis ensuring we never forget that support for the French President (26% in case you were wondering) is abysmal. He is also losing the backing of his Cabinet, with Hollande dismissing his environment minister, Delphine Batho, shortly after she criticised the Government’s new budget this month.
Hollande might think he has found the perfect decoy in Le Pen, deflecting attention towards her. After all, since replacing her father as head of the party, she has attempted to remove all public-facing ‘nasty’ elements of the FN the most well-known anti-Semites, the Vichy apologists and the torturers in Algeria are all but gone. The political angle is fairly simple, they just need to remind the public that although the FN has a young, dynamic leader, the core beliefs of the party are the same, and, look at their leader being whisked off to prison.
Yet it is worth noting that, according to the Constitutional Council, a criminal conviction would not stop her from running for office again. Indeed, if she were charged, she would likely be released with plenty of time to campaign for the next elections. Equally, she would not go down without a fight.
A trial would see her make front covers consistently and she would likely play the victim, attacking Hollande for focussing his energy upon her when the country was in need of a powerful leader to reduce unemployment, create jobs and, typically, reduce the number of immigrants in the country.
Instead of allowing Hollande to simply govern in the shadows while the media focussed on the trial, the President may just find himself under yet more pressure. The country would likely have a new debate on its hands too, this time focussing on the understanding of liberté d’expression. French legislation, like British law, does have limitations on what can be publicly stated but such a high-profile case will almost certainly conjure up fierce debate.
Meanwhile, if found guilty, the FN faithful would perceive Le Pen as a victim of the movement. The party’s political and media influence is unlikely to fall either, as even without the constant buzz of Marine on the television, her 23-year-old niece Marion Maréchal, the youngest member of the National Assembly and one of only two FN Deputies, would certainly cause a stir.
Her political flair was particularly evident when she was asked only last month by Le Figaro if a comparison between Muslims praying on the streets and the German occupation was fair. In response to the question, she said: “It’s more complicated than that but it is particularly serious, especially when we consider that it affects public order.”