By Francesco Guarascio
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union lawmakers lifted the EU parliamentary immunity of French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen on Thursday for tweeting pictures of Islamic State violence.
Le Pen, who leads her National Front party in the European legislature, is under investigation in France for posting three graphic images of Islamic State executions on Twitter in December 2015, including the beheading of American journalist James Foley.
Le Pen's immunity shielded her from prosecution. By lifting it, after a request from the French judiciary, the parliament is allowing any eventual legal action against her.
The move grants the prosecutor looking into the affair power to bring Le Pen in for police questioning.
In the next steps, the prosecutor could drop the case, appoint an investigating magistrate to delve further into it, or send it straight to trial. A trial date ahead of the election in April and May would require the French legal process to go much faster than it normally does.
The offence being considered is "publishing violent images", which under certain circumstances can carry a penalty of three years in prison and a fine of 75,000 euros ($78,930).
She has denounced the legal proceedings against her as political interference in the campaign and called for a moratorium on judicial investigations until the election period has passed.
Le Pen has already seen her earnings as MEP cut for a different case involving alleged misuse of EU funds.
Polls say Le Pen will win the first of the two election rounds but lose in the runoff. They also show that her legal battles seem to have little effect on her supporters.
The vote on Thursday by a large show of hands in the plenary of the EU Parliament confirmed a preliminary decision taken on Tuesday by the legal affairs committee of the EU legislature.
In the report underpinning parliament's decision, eurosceptic 5 Star Movement lawmaker Laura Ferrara said that although the images posted by Le Pen were easily accessible on several websites, "this does not alter the fact that their violent nature is likely to undermine human dignity".
Le Pen's move was seen as not appropriate for a member of the European Parliament, the report said.
Ferrara also said that there was no reason to think Le Pen was being persecuted judicially because "the speed at which legal proceedings have been taken against Marine Le Pen is comparable to the pace of other proceedings in matters relating to the press and other media".
Le Pen's immunity has been lifted before, in 2013, by the EU parliament. She was then prosecuted in 2015 with "incitement to discrimination over people's religious beliefs", for comparing Muslims praying in public to the Nazi occupation of France during World War Two. Prosecutors eventually recommended the charges be dropped.
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Alison Williams)