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Court rules in favour of Le Pen

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The way has been opened for French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen to regain his European Parliament seat after a court overturned a legal ruling last year to bar him from the assembly.

The European Court of First Instance ruled against a decision last October by the European Parliament President Nicole Fontaine to prevent Le Pen from sitting in the assembly.

Le Pen was barred from office for a year after assaulting an opponent during the 1997 French general election campaign.

The Luxembourg-based court ruled to "suspend the execution of the 'decision' taken by European Parliament President Nicole Fontaine."

Fontaine's spokesman, Jacques Nancy, said the ruling was on technical grounds, rather than the substance of the case.

Le Pen was convicted in April 1998 of assaulting Socialist candidate Annette Peulvast-Bergeal and sentenced to two years ineligibility for public office.

This was reduced to one year on appeal, but Le Pen took his case to France's highest administrative court, the Council of State, which confirmed the sentence in a ruling in October.

"The President of the European Parliament obviously respects the decision of the (European) Court of First Instance," Nancy said as the 20-page ruling was issued on Friday.

The ruling says Fontaine was wrong to enforce the French authorities' decision without a formal vote in the assembly on the basis of a report from its legal committee.

Nancy said Fontaine would ask the committee on Monday to study the implications of the ruling.

In a brief statement, Le Pen's National Front party said: "The National Front rejoices in the decision by the Court of First Instance of the European Court of Justice to re-establish its president Jean-Marie Le Pen's rights and mandate in the European Parliament.

"His expulsion had, in effect, constituted a flagrant, deliberate and unprecedented violation of rights and justice."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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