By Francesco Guarascio
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union lawmakers "overwhelmingly" voted on Tuesday to lift the EU parliamentary immunity of French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen for tweeting pictures of Islamic State violence.
Le Pen, a member of the European parliament, is under investigation in France for posting three graphic images of IS executions on Twitter in 2015, including the beheading of the United States journalist James Foley.
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Responding to a request from the French judiciary, the EU lawmakers in the legal affairs committee voted to lift her immunity, EU officials said. The committee's decision will have to be backed by the whole parliament in a second vote, possibly this week.
Le Pen's immunity shields her from prosecution; lifting it would permit legal action against her. The offense 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 ($79,650).
MEPs "overwhelmingly voted to lift Le Pen's immunity," said euroskeptic 5 Star Movement lawmaker Laura Ferrara. A Parliament official said 18 lawmakers voted in favor of removing Le Pen's immunity and three voted against.
Le Pen could not immediately be reached for comment.
"Showing and naming the horror of Islamism allow us to fight against it," Florian Philippot, the vice president of Le Pen's far-right National Front party, told Reuters.
Le Pen, locked in an increasingly tight three-way race to succeed Francois Hollande this spring, has already seen her earnings as MEP cut for a different case involving alleged misuse of EU funds.
She has denounced the legal proceedings against her as political interference in the campaign, where she is the lead candidate, and called for a moratorium on judicial investigations until the election period has passed.
Polls say Le Pen should 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.
Le Pen's immunity has been lifted before, in 2013. 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.
(Additional reporting by Chine Labbe and Yves Clarisse in Paris; editing by Larry King)