By Gilbert Reilhac
STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - The leader of France's far-right National Front lost her right to legal immunity as a European Parliament deputy on Tuesday, exposing her to possible prosecution over a racism charge.
A majority of her fellow parliamentarians backed the request by a court in Lyon, three years after she was accused of inciting racial hatred for comparing Muslim street prayers to the occupation of France by Nazi Germany.
Le Pen, whose father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, was present at the vote, said she had been targeted as a political adversary, pointing out that other deputies facing prosecution had retained immunity.
"I stand behind my words and I'll defend them in court," Marine Le Pen, a lawyer by training, told BFM television. "I'm absolutely convinced the court will rule in my favor and protect my right to tell the truth to the French people."
A public trial in France would be a setback for the National Front as it seeks to capitalize on her rising popularity to grab territory from the ruling Socialist Party and the mainstream right in local and European Parliament elections next year.
Against a darkening economic backdrop, Le Pen's anti-immigrant, anti-EU party is gaining support at the expense of President Francois Hollande's Socialists as high and rising joblessness fuels the spread of her Eurosceptic views.
The National Front has also profited from a tax evasion scandal that prompted the resignation of ex-budget minister Jerome Cahuzac, stealing votes in his former home district during a by-election last month.
It is tipped to make strong gains in May 2014 European elections, with one survey by pollster YouGov in June showing it could reap 18 percent of the vote - ahead of the Socialists but behind the center-right UMP party.
When Le Pen won her EU parliament seat in northwest France in 2009, the National Front tallied 6.3 percent of the vote versus 16.4 percent for the Socialists and 27.8 percent for the UMP.
Le Pen was ranked France's third most-popular politician in an online poll conducted in May by website L'Internaute.
If found guilty of inciting racial hatred, she would face a maximum penalty of one year in prison and 45,000 euros in fines.
(Writing by Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by David Cowell)