France's parliament has begun debating a controversial new bill which would punish the clients of prostitutes. The radical about-face aims to reduce the demand for paid sex.
The French government says the law aims to curb violence against women and protect those prostitutes who are the victims of human traffickers, but activists and sex workers have taken to the streets in protest of the measures which they worry will scare away clients and impinge on their rights to sell their bodies.
As the parliamentary debate began on Friday, one of those spearheading the bill, Socialist Maud Olivier, said the bill's critics were showing "hypocrisy."
"One prostitute declares herself free and the slavery of others becomes respectable and acceptable?" she asked the lawmakers.
It's estimated there are at least 20,000 prostitutes in France and the vast majority of those – between 80 and 90 percent – are foreign nationals mainly from Bulgaria, Romania, China, Nigeria and Brazil who have been lured, forced or tricked into the trade by human traffickers.
Turning the tables
While prostitution is allowed in France, pimping and the sale of sex by minors is not. Under current French law, prostitutes can be fined 3,750 euros ($5096) and sentenced to two months jail for soliciting people to pay for sex.
With the proposed law, paying for sex would become a criminal act. Clients would face a either a fine of 1,500 euros ($2,040), or have to attend an awareness course showing the often degrading conditions in which prostitution takes place, or both. The fine would be doubled for repeat offenders.
The prostitutes would be offered help to leave the trade, including finding jobs and housing. Foreigners would receive help with obtaining legal residency.
Prostitutes' groups have taken issue with street workers being labeled as victims. Dozens of protesters demonstrated outside France's lower house National Assembly on Friday (pictured above). French celebrities such as actress Catherine Deneuve and Charles Aznavour were among about 60 people to sign an open letter this month opposing the bill.
Medical charity Medecins du Monde warned the measures would drive the industry underground and make it more dangerous.
The French bill was inspired by the success of similar measures in Sweden, which saw the number of prostitutes halve since 1999. In Germany opposite measures were taken with a law passed in 2001 to regulate prostitution and give sex workers access to social benefits. Germany now has an estimated 400,000 prostitutes – which critics see as a mark of the law's failure.
French lawmakers will undertake the first round of voting on the bill on December 4.
se/dr (dpa, AFP)