FRENCH MPs have voted in favour of a reversal in the law - to punish prostitutes’ clients instead of prostitutes, a move which has polarised opinion across the country.
The law will now be debated by the Senate later this year. It proposes fining people who pay for sex €1,500, or €3,750 for a repeat offence. It abolishes the crime of soliciting, which, in a 2003 law included both “active” and “passive” kinds (ie. just standing on the street dressed suggestively). An earlier law against active soliciting was repealed in 2004.
The recent change was inspired by a law passed in Sweden in 1999, which is said to have halved street prostitution in 10 years.
Prostitution opponents such as Mouvement du Nid and Osez le Féminisme have called the vote “historic” and official equality watchdog the Haut Conseil à l’Egalité Femmes-Hommes stated: “This is sending a strong signal in France, Europe and the world.”
However some groups working with prostitutes said it would make life harder for people who have freely chosen the work, the government having assumed prostitutes are under pressure from traffickers or pimps. The charity Médecins du Monde said the law may have an ideological bias but “does not correspond to practical realities” and may push prostitution more underground and cause greater vulnerability. There is a great variation in choice, vulnerability and exploitation and whether prostitutes are illegal immigrants or not, stated its head of operations in France.
Magazine Le Causeur organised a petition against the law change. Deputy editor Daoud Boughezala said: “We don’t defend pimp networks, we defend those prostitutes, doubtless the minority, who do it voluntarily, against state interference from people who want to moralise. Actor Philippe Caubère, one of the signatories who is upfront about being a customer, says in a recent issue that they want to blacken the image of men.
“We call for strict application of the anti-pimping and exploitation laws, which exist, but are not correctly applied.”
However male feminist group Zéromacho, strong supporters of the law, stated all prostitutes suffer physical and psychological harm. They said it is “hard to imagine people freely choose to undergo such violence” though “they may deny their condition while they are involved in it, because to recognise it would be all the more painful”. Spokesman Patric Jean, said: “Specialist doctors recently published a piece in Le Monde detailing all the traumas prostitutes suffer from, notably, but not only, in the genital area.” He called those who signed the petition “19th century men.”
“Today in Lebanon there are camps of very poor Syrian refugees who sell their kidneys - they are not forced, but can society accept it? And who should we punish? The poor person or the customer? Prostitution is the same.”
Senator Jean-Pierre Godefroy, author of a recent report, told Libération internet-based prostitution rose greatly after the 2003 law. He said most prostitutes came from Africa or Eastern Europe; only about 10-15% were “traditional” ones. Some were endebted to mafia networks to whom they must pay up to €60,000 for false papers and accommodation. Many Nigerians were sold by their families, he said.
Geneva policeman Frédéric Buchs recently said that while street prostitutes may charge less than €80, “high-class” escorts charge at least €650/hour or €1,600-€3,200 a night.
Along with fines for clients the new law includes several ideas for helping prostituted people. These include creating official bodies at departmental level to coordinate action helping victims of prostitution and human trafficking; creating a state fund for preventing prostitution and helping prostituted people socially and in finding work and giving illegal immigrants involved in prostitution and seeking to leave it a six-month provisional residence permit. As well as, or instead of, fines it also calls for creating short courses for clients (that they would have to pay for) on the problems prostitution causes.
The Connexion interviews prostitutes in Nice
Connexion journalist Carolyn Reynier visited street prostitutes in Nice with a welfare worker from the local diocese.
THE Association Le Mouvement du Nid is one of the most ardent supporters of the new law.
Working closely with prostituted people (see above right), it is represented in over 30 French cities, however at present Riviera capital Nice, which has a fairly visible population of street prostitutes at night in certain quartiers, is not one of them - though that may be set to change.
In April 2013 Polish priest Greg Skicki was charged by the Diocese of Nice to go out on the streets offering nothing other than a smile and a friendly word - to make contact with the city’s prostitutes. It seems this initiative will eventually become part of the Mouvement du Nid.
In the project’s embryonic stages Greg asked me to accompany him on his first visits.
He had done his homework and knew which areas of the city to visit but for obvious reasons he could not set off on his own - the association carries out its field visits in male/female pairs.
I had already exchanged the occasional bonsoir with some of the girls who work near my apartment. Now I tarried a bit longer, and, together, we also visited other areas in the city.
Our brief, simple exchanges with the women we met might seem banal, but nobody speaks to these shadowy figures on the streets and on the margins of society - except prospective clients.
The few white girls we met came from Eastern Europe. A couple of young Hungarians spoke virtually no French or English.
We ascertained that they had been here for three years and we had the impression they would have liked to exchange a few words but the language barrier meant that all we could exchange was a smile.
As we approached two others standing in a doorway, a car with darkened windows pulled up. One girl walked over and put her head through the window to speak to the driver. She returned to her companion to collect her handbag, got into the car and it drove off slowly into the night.
The black girls, all from Ghana in western Africa, spoke poor French but good English. Some looked like teenagers, others older; some were quite chatty, others more reticent; some had been here for only three months, others longer.
One girl I spoke to – her friend remained at a distance but within earshot - said she had been here for a year. How did she find Nice? She shrugged her shoulders. “It’s OK. I have a good boss.” He had contacted a lawyer about applying for refugee status, she added.
Although none of the young women we met had yet asked why we were speaking to them some were curious. “You speak good English. Where you from?” Another asked me: “Is that your son?”
A young Ghanaian who seemed more independent spoke of going back and forth to Paris to work. It was she who brought our brief exchange to a close with a glance down the road (an approaching client perhaps?) and a smiling “Thank you for stopping to talk to us.”
That day Ghana had qualified for the football World Cup to be held later this year in Brazil. I don’t know whether these young women are football fans but when I mentioned it their faces lit up.
I realised our brief encounters were not going unnoticed when, on my way home alone, I stopped to say good evening to a girl and she asked “Where your husband tonight?”
Our impression was that the young women we met were certainly part of procurement networks. However a young Romanian broke the mould.
She was standing talking to another girl on the corner near my home the first time we paused to say good evening. It was a cold night and they were sipping hot drinks.
In French we asked where they were from and whether they preferred to speak English. The other girl remained silent but she replied rather abruptly: “English, French, I speak both”. She seemed very defensive.
I continued to exchange a few words each time I passed. The other girl, when she was there, usually stood further down the pavement; this one always stood on the corner, and was always there.
She was there late one Sunday night. Did she never have a day off? No, she worked every evening, and every afternoon, seven days a week, she replied. I asked if she did this work back home. “No, I’m an engineer.”
She spoke five foreign languages. She said she was here because her 11-year-old son was sick and needed treatment costing €100,000.
Although she earned good money in her job she could never hope to earn that quickly enough. Her family thought she was on a study course to advance her career and that she spent all her free time baby-sitting. She said she had been in Nice for six or seven months and hoped to return home in a month or so, adding: “I’ll never do this again.”