A controversial move by French lawmakers to prohibit prostitution by targeting those who pay for sex will put the lives of prostitutes in danger, organizations representing sex workers told FRANCE 24 this week.
On Tuesday a show of hands from members at the National Assembly in Paris was enough to set in motion a move towards criminalizing prostitution.
A bill will now be introduced to parliament in the coming days that if passed will make the act of paying for sex illegal in France.
Fines of €3,000 and prison sentences of up to six months have been suggested as appropriate punishments to be handed out to clients caught handing over cash for sex.
But the proposed crackdown, which will come as a surprise to many observers considering the long history of liberal attitudes towards sex in France, has angered organisations which represent sex workers.
They believe a move to prohibit an act often referred to “as the oldest profession in the world” will leave them more vulnerable to violence.
“The French proposals are dangerous, and criminal. Sex workers experience and all the research shows criminalizing clients drives women underground and into more danger”, said Sara Walker from the London-based International Prostitutes Collective.
“They are making it worse under the guise of making it better,” she added.
Morgane Merteuil, general secretary of Strass, – the union for sex workers in Paris – was equally dismissive of the resolution. “All the laws that have been introduced up until now to protect women have been completely counter-productive. Tuesday’s vote in the National Assembly is exactly the same,” she told FRANCE 24.
“Prostitutes will be hidden from organizations that can help them, as well as from health services and they will be more susceptible to being victims of violence.”
“They are simply forced to take protection from a pimp,” she explained. And launching a stinging attack on groups traditionally opposed to prostitution she said: “Our clients are much more respectful towards us than the feminist abolitionists.”
Moving away from the rest of Europe
The motion, which won support in the National Assembly, said France should seek “a society without prostitution” and that sex work “should in no case be designated as a professional activity”.
The conservative attitude shown by those politicians is a far cry from the days of Napoleon when prostitutes in France were licensed and the country became a model for its regulation of the sex trade.
The law would also be a move away from the stance towards prostitution of France’s near neighbours. In Germany prostitution has been fully legal since 2002 where a law was passed stating the act of earning money for sex “should not be considered immoral anymore”.
Prostitution is also legal in Holland where it is a thriving industry. In Britain, paying for sex is not outlawed but many activities such as solliciting for sex, owning a brothel and kerb-crawling are.
But police chiefs said recently that alternative, more liberal approaches to policing the sex trade need to be looked at.
A political stunt?
Some observers believe the popularity of this week’s vote and its timing can be put down to a reaction to the series of sex scandals involving disgraced former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Strauss-Kahn was recently named in an investigation into a pimping ring which operated out of luxury hotels in the northern city of Lille.
But Ms Walker, from the International Prostitutes Collective, believes it is politically motivated. “They want to look tough on law and order and crime,” she said. “It’s just a political stunt with the elections coming up next year.”
She added “The French population is against these proposals. If they are introduced the government, the feminists and others promoting these moralistic and repressive laws, will be responsible if rape and violence against sex workers increases.”
Those who want to abolish prostitution, who are on both sides of the political spectrum, argue that most women are victims of human trafficking, who are forced to work in the sex trade once they arrive in the country.
Assembly member Guy Geoffroy of the ruling right-of-centre UMP party said passing the bill would be an “important, symbolic and solemn step”.
“Nine out of ten prostitutes are victims of human trafficking” he said, referring to a report presented to the assembly on Tuesday.