A bill that would decriminalize prostitutes and fine their customers in a bid to tackle human trafficking networks has passed France's lower house of parliament by a wide margin. The bill goes next to the Senate.
French lawmakers on Wednesday approved a controversial bill that will make the clients of prostitutes liable for fines starting at 1,500 euros ($2,000).
The draft anti-prostitution law was approved by 268 deputies, with 138 voting against and 79 abstaining.
The bill is expected to face more opposition in the Senate. Protesters, including prostitutes in masks, demonstrated in front of the parliament building in recent weeks.
A final vote could be several months away.
'End of long road'
President Francois Hollande's Socialist government strongly backs the bill. Women's rights minister Najat Vallaud-Blekacem hailed Wednesday's vote as "the end of a long road strewn with pitfalls".
By decriminalizing the estimated 40,000 prostitutes in France, the bill would also make it easier for foreign prostitutes to remain legally in France if they enter a program to get out of prostitution.
For that, a budget of 20 million euros per year has been allocated.
Focus to shift to clients
Prostitution is legal in France but soliciting, pimping and the sale of sex by minors is prohibited. The bill would shift the focus of policing efforts to the clients.
Critics, who include some of France's most prominent celebrities, say the legislation will simply push prostitution further underground and make the women who earn their living from it more vulnerable to abuse.
The French interior ministry has estimated that more than 80 percent of prostitutes come from abroad - mostly from eastern Europe, Africa, China and South America.
ipj/rc (AP, AFP)