The crime under French law barring extreme speech carries up to three years in prison and a roughly $90,000 fine, though Le Pen’s status as a political figure would probably shield her from a stiff sentence were she convicted.
“It’s clearly aimed at silencing me. But I will not be silenced,” Le Pen told French media Thursday. She added that she would consider a conviction a “medal of patriotism and defense of the French people.”
Rodolphe Bosselut, Le Pen’s lawyer, confirmed the charges to the Associated Press but declined to comment.
The charges came about four months after France’s National Assembly voted to strip Le Pen of immunity from prosecution, triggering an investigation into the 2015 tweets.
In the United States, criminal prosecution of a person for political speech is barred by the First Amendment under all but the most extreme circumstances.
At the time, a French expert on Islam compared the National Front’s growing popularity among French conservatives to “jihadism,” as Le Monde reported.
In response, an outraged Le Pen tweeted three grisly photographs with the text “That is Daesh!” using a nickname for the Islamic State.
One of the images showed the decapitated body of James Foley, an American journalist captured by militants in Syria in 2012 and killed two years later. Another showed Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, a Jordanian pilot, being burned alive inside a cage. The third showed a man in an orange jumpsuit being crushed by a tank.
Le Pen deleted the tweets after public outcry and requests by Foley’s family to take them down.
When parliament voted to remove her immunity last year, Le Pen responded with bitter sarcasm. “Better to be a jihadist returning [to France] from Syria than an MP who denounces the abasement of Islamic state: one takes fewer judicial risks,” she tweeted.
French law prohibits a variety of speech the government deems hateful or extreme, and explicitly bars speech that is intended to incite racial, gender or religious hatred.
In January, Gilbert Collard, a Le Pen supporter and member of parliament, was charged with the same offense after he tweeted a photo of a man with a grisly head wound lying on the ground, purportedly slain by Islamic State fighters, as Le Monde reported. He, too, posted the image in response to a French journalist who compared the National Front to the terrorist group. Collard said he would appeal the charge.
Though her party holds few seats in parliament, Le Pen is a heavyweight in French politics, hailing from a family of far-right politicians. Known for her “native French first” beliefs and her brash stances against immigration, multiculturalism and the European Union, she is widely credited with bringing mainstream appeal to the National Front at a time when nationalism is on the rise throughout the continent. She ran for president last year but was defeated by Emmanuel Macron, a centrist who won more than 66 percent of the vote.
Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was the National Front’s former leader. He was convicted of Holocaust denial after he referred to Nazi gas chambers as a “detail of history,” and expelled from the party in 2015 as its leadership tried to shed some of its extreme right-wing roots. Once a presidential contender, he has become something of a pariah in France. But his recently released memoir is a bestseller, as The Washington Post has reported.
Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, also a member of the National Front, delivered a speech this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where she spoke favorably of the Trump administration’s nationalist policies.
In addition to the charges over her tweets, Marine Le Pen is facing allegations that she misused European Parliament funds when she was a member of that body. She is accused of putting staffers on the European Parliament payroll as parliamentary aides when investigators say they were doing political work for the National Front. She has denied wrongdoing.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the First Amendment barred criminal prosecution for speech no matter how extreme or inflammatory. While that’s true in most cases, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t protect certain types of threatening or obscene speech, or speech that directly incites violence.