Lawmakers in France Move to Discourage Sex Trade
By MAÏA de la BAUME and ALISSA J. RUBIN
Published: December 4, 2013
PARIS — After months of heated debate, the French Parliament’s lower house on Wednesday took the first step in criminalizing the purchase of sex, approving a package of legislation to discourage prostitution.
The proposed legislation, in a country usually associated with more liberal attitudes toward sex, elicited vocal and often angry views over the measure. It brought prostitutes into the streets to condemn what they saw as a damper on their business, drawing support from an unlikely coalition of celebrities, intellectuals and ordinary citizens.
But by the time the bill came to a vote, President François Hollande’s government, which had supported the measure as a step toward abolition of prostitution, had easily gathered the necessary support.
In France, prostitution is tolerated but soliciting is illegal.
On Wednesday, 268 lawmakers in the lower house, the National Assembly, voted in favor of the bill, with 138 opposed. It would levy a fine of 1,500 euros, or about $2,000, on those who “solicit, accept or obtain relations of a sexual nature” from a prostitute in exchange for remuneration.
The fine can rise to €3,750 (about $5,000) for repeat offenders.
Clients would also be required to undergo awareness classes on the abuses that prostitutes suffer and the dangers of sex work.
If the bill is signed into law following approval by the Senate — which is expected next year — France will come in line with other Northern European countries that criminalize solicitation, including Sweden and Norway.
Those who pay for sex are punished by Swedish law with a hefty fine and as much as a year in prison.
But over all, Europe is deeply divided on how to deal with the sex trade.
Some countries, like the Netherlands and Germany, are seeking to regulate prostitution as a legal occupation; others ban either prostitution or pimping.
The legislation approved by the lower house on Wednesday also intends to provide programs for prostitutes to train for and find new jobs.
A fund would be created to offer them protection and deliver short-term residence permits to foreign prostitutes who want to leave the business.
On Wednesday, many French feminists who view prostitution as a form of violence against women welcomed the vote as a significant step in the evolution of French society.
“It is excellent news. We are thrilled,” said Anne-Cécile Mailfert, the spokeswoman of Osez le Féminisme, or Dare to Be Feminist. “Not only does it protect prostitutes, but it shows how brave we are in the face of inequalities and sexual freedom.”
But some French prostitutes, doctors and many human rights associations denounced the vote, arguing that it could push prostitutes farther underground and worsen their working conditions.
“We are totally in shock,” said Manuela, a prostitute and spokeswoman of the Syndicat du Travail Sexuel, a union of sex workers in France.
“It is a law against prostitutes; it will change the way we work,” she said. “We will have to hide, to work in apartments, where we will be alone and vulnerable.”
For Manuela, who refused to give her last name because she said she wanted to protect her identity, the government and the law’s supporters were failing to distinguish between traditional prostitutes who work freely and the victims of prostitution rings.
“We must help those” who are trafficking victims, Manuela said of women forced into the sex trade.
A recent editorial signed by several associations and nonprofit organizations, including Doctors Without Borders, called the measure deceitful and dangerous for prostitutes’ health.
“There is a true social regression behind this new repressive measure,” the editorial said. “Under the new law, the prostitutes will be sent away from the city centers, far from health care and prevention centers, they will be more exposed to health risks, to AIDS, H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted infections.”
Some scholars and celebrities also denounced the proposed law. Élisabeth Badinter, a professor at the elite École Polytechnique, called it “a declaration of hate to male sexuality.”
In a recent interview published in Le Monde, Ms. Badinter described the law as hypocritical.
“I cannot justify allowing women to be prostitutes while forbidding men from turning to them,” she said. “It is not coherent, and it is unfair.”
Others, including the singer Antoine, who brought together more than 70 celebrities including the actress Catherine Deneuve to speak out in defense of those who have chosen to work freely as prostitutes, called on the government to take more time and debate “without any ideological a priori.”
Among the opponents of the law were the self-proclaimed “343 bastards,” a group of commentators and writers who defended their right to sexual freedom. “Whether we are gays or straight, libertines or monogamous, faithful or adulterous husbands, we are men,” they wrote in a manifesto published in Causeur, a monthly magazine.
“We consider that everybody has the right to sell one’s body freely, and even to like it,” the manifesto said. “And we don’t want parliamentarians to legislate on our desires and pleasures.”
About 20,000 prostitutes work in France, and 85 percent are women, according to the figures issued by the French government office that combats human trafficking.