The European Parliament stripped National Front leader Marine Le Pen of her immunity as a lawmaker on Tuesday, leaving her open to face prosecution in France for inciting racial hatred over a speech she made denouncing the holding of Muslim prayers in the street.
Tuesday's decision was expected after a European Parliament judicial committee voted in favour of lifting Le Pen's immunity in a closed-door hearing last week. The committee agreed to a report proposing the lifting by 11 votes in favour, one against and four abstentions
The populist far-right leader, who was first elected to the European Parliament in 2004, said ahead of the vote that it was an attempt to "intimidate" her because she was "a dissident" and she invoked her right to freedom of expression.
Le Pen now faces the very real prospect of being prosecuted for inciting racial hatred in France for remarks she made in a speech to National Front (FN) supporters in December 2010.
The far-right leader, who was present for the vote in the parliament's chamber in Strasbourg along with her father and National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, told France's BFMTV that the vote was a violation of her freedom of expression.
She said the lifting of her immunity "dishonours the European Parliament", adding: "I am a political adversary who is more dangerous than the others because of my results in the polls."
"I will now defend myself in court and I am absolutely convinced that it will rule in my favour and defend my right to tell the French the truth about the situation," she said.
She said that her views were shared by "a majority of French people" and that the lawmakers' vote "will bring to the fore the issue of daily violations against secularism in France".
In the speech she denounced the holding of Muslim prayers in the streets of France – where a dearth of mosques has forced many to pray outside – saying: "For those who like to talk about World War II, to talk about occupation, we could talk about, for once, the occupation of our territory."
"There are no armoured vehicles, no soldiers, but it is an occupation all the same and it weighs on people."
Prosecutors in Lyon, where the speech took place, opened an investigation into the remarks for "inciting racial hatred".
As with many national parliaments, members of the European Parliament enjoy immunity from criminal and civil liability for opinions expressed as part of their duties, unless the chamber votes to lift the immunity.
FN vice president Florian Philippot told AFP earlier this month that he would wait for the full parliament's vote, adding that it would be unheard of if Le Pen lost her immunity "for having spoken the truth about the (Muslim) prayers in the streets which still take place…. The French do not like when people hide the truth from them."
Le Pen took over the FN from her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has several convictions for racism and anti-Semitism.
Marine Le Pen, who was first elected to the European Parliament in 2004, won 18 percent of the vote in the first round of France's presidential election in April 2012, the party's highest-ever score.
Tuesday's decision will be a blow to the party just as it was hoping to build up momentum ahead of the 2014 municipal elections. The National Front has been in confident mood after its candidate beat the Socialist party nominee into a second place in a parliamentary bi-election last month.