French far-right leader Marine Le Pen in court over Islamic State group tweets
Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right party National Rally party in Paris on October 27, 2020. © Ludovic Marin AFP/Archives

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen appeared in court Wednesday on charges she broke hate speech laws by tweeting pictures of Islamic State (IS) group atrocities, a case she slammed as a politically motivated attempt to silence her.

The trial comes as opinion polls show Le Pen will likely face off again against Emmanuel Macron in next year's presidential contest, after her National Rally made its strongest showing ever in the 2017 vote.

Le Pen shared the gruesome images in December 2015, a few weeks after IS group jihadists killed 130 people in attacks in Paris, in response to a journalist who drew a comparison between IS group and her party.

One of the pictures showed the body of James Foley, an American journalist beheaded by the Islamist militants.

Another showed a man in an orange jumpsuit being run over by a tank, and the third a Jordanian pilot being burned alive in a cage.

"Daesh is this!" Le Pen wrote in a caption, using an Arabic acronym for IS group.

"I am obviously the victim of a political trial," Le Pen told journalists at the courthouse in Nanterre, a Paris suburb.

"The media published them, editorialists, newspapers, TV channels, and nobody was ever prosecuted for doing so -- only Marine Le Pen is being prosecuted," she said.

'Horribly shocking'

In 2018 a judge charged her as well as Gilbert Collard, a National Rally colleague who also tweeted the pictures, with circulating "violent messages that incite terrorism or pornography or seriously harm human dignity" and that can be viewed by a minor.

The crime is punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine of €75,000 ($90,000), but the prosecution is seeking only a €5,000 fine.

Le Pen, a lawyer by training, later deleted the picture of Foley after a request from his family, saying she had been unaware of his identity.

But on Wednesday she defended their publication, despite acknowledging that "I find these pictures horribly shocking."

However, she said: "It's the crime that denigrates human dignity, not a picture of it."

Le Pen also insisted she was the victim of a political witch-hunt -- she was stripped of her parliamentary immunity over the pictures, and angrily rejected an order to undergo psychiatric tests as part of the inquiry.

A verdict is expected on May 4.

Since taking over France's main far-right party from her father, Le Pen has run twice for the French presidency, and recent polling shows her closer than ever to what for her would be the ultimate prize.

That has rekindled speculation about whether the anti-EU, anti-immigration populist could finally enter the Elysée Palace.

On Thursday, she is set to have a prime-time TV debate with Macron's Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, which will be closely watched after critics panned her debate performance against Macron before the 2017 vote.

Le Pen has another legal challenge looming, over claims that she and other party officials improperly spent millions of euros in public funds to pay their assistants while serving in the EU Parliament.

Investigators say almost seven million euros ($7.7 million) was diverted from the European Parliament between 2009 and 2017.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)