France’s new bill on Prostitution passes through the Assemblée Nationale

Recently, France has made a move to change its laws on prostitution. From now on, those who are caught paying for sex will be subject to a fine, of around 1,500 euros.  If you are caught re-offending, the fine will be even larger. France is the fifth country in the world to adopt such a law.

The bill was passed through the Assemblée Nationale, but before being officially adopted by the State, it will also be discussed in the Sénat, which won’t happen until June.

Many commentators in France have chosen to analyse this as a change in the way that the State looks at prostitutes. This law changes their status to victims, and those who pay for sex will from now on be seen as criminals. The French organization Osez le féminisme! called it a historic vote but underlined that it will continue to fight so that foreign prostitutes receive the right to stay in the country – thereby allowing them to work legally. It has also been said that this law will help to avoid the construction of mafia networks exploiting vulnerable members of society who turn to prostitution in order to earn a living.  Many other organizations such as school associations and high-profile politicians have approved the notion of a law against paying for sex as it reinforces the notion that the human body is not for sale.

A December article in The Economist pointed out that in France around 90% of sex workers are of a foreign origin, in comparison with around 20% in 1990. There are also cases of women being trafficked from China, Romania, Bulgaria and Nigeria in order to then work as prostitutes. The minister at the head of this new bill, Najet Vallaud-Belkacem argues that the extremely unsavoury aspect of today’s prostitution rings calls for a much tougher stance from the State and a protection from psychological and physical abuse; as a result soliciting has been decriminalized.

This is a change from the 2003 law (called the ‘Sarkozy Law,) which Nicolas Sarkozy passed through when he was Interior Minister. This law prohibited what is known as ‘Passive Solicitation;’ being present in revealing clothes at places where prostitutes are known to work. When this law was still in place, 39.5% of those charged with passive solicitation between March 2003 and July 2004 were from Romania, Bulgaria or Albania, and 34.5% were from Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Cameroon. Only 15% were French. Between January 2003 and January 2004, 90% of Romanian women deported admitted to working as prostitutes. Therefore this law, by treating prostitution as an issue of public disorder, mostly caught in its web those who could not afford not to work on the streets – in a maison close, and those who were victims of international sex trafficking.

The overturning of this law in March of this year was, according to the French government, one of the first steps to decriminalizing the prostitute, and criminalizing the buyer. However, France remains an ‘abolitionist’ country; that is to say a country that aims at eradicating the practice of prostitution entirely.

Nevertheless, there has not been unanimous approval for the bill. Opponents have highlighted the hypocrisy of decriminalizing solicitation, yet penalising those who accept approaches from prostitutes.

The organization Aides, which fights against the spread of HIV AIDS was quoted in Libération as saying that the bill was ’inapplicable et dangereux,’ (inapplicable and dangerous) (Libération 4.12.13). One can assume that this is because criminalising buying sex will make it more of an underground activity than it already is, and won’t help to encourage safe measures whilst engaging in sexual activities. Jean-François Corty, director of Médicins du Monde, has also gone on record as saying that this bill will have a ‘counter-productive effect,’ (Libération 4.12.13) because it will make prostitution an even more clandestine activity, meaning that the work that they carry out with prostitutes will become more difficult. Some members of the UMP have also criticized the fact that the bill also proposes that those who wish to stop working in the sex industry be given temporary financial aid and permission to stay in France for six months, claiming that this will open the door to a mass of illegal immigration for those who see this social aid as an attractive prospect.

It is not only aid and charity workers that have opposed or criticized the bill. There have been sex workers demonstrating in Paris against the bill and what they see as an attempt to criminalize their profession and compromise their ability to earn a living. A powerful slogan that was brandished at a demonstration outside the Assemblée Nationale was ‘You sleep with us, you vote against us!’

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(Picture appeared in The Economist, 7.12.13. The slogan says ‘Whores without clients are looking for a governmental position.’)

The fact that there were demonstrations in Paris against the new bill encourages us to look at the history of prostitution in France. One only has to visit a museum to trace the cultural representation of prostitution throughout the ages. Brassaï, amongst others (Ingres, Manet, Degas, Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec) have represented Prostitution in their art. In the Impressionist era, it formed part of their desire to represent life truthfully as they saw it, to glorify the banal aspects of everyday life, prostitution therefore playing an important part.

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(Toulouse-Lautrec, At Rue des Moulins, 1894)

A popular refrain associates French culture with liberal cultural morals, and the religiously influenced notion that prostitutes were victims who required salvation. In the late 19th century, William Acton, a student of prostitution who campaigned for its regulation in London, published a survey of prostitution and compared it to systems elsewhere, including in Paris. He produced a comprehensive description of the regulation of prostitution in Paris, elucidating how, once attempts had been made to dissuade women from prostitution, various laws were enforced to ensure discretion. They had to dress discreetly, could only work between certain hours, could only work in certain areas of Paris, and were not allowed to practice their profession if found to be ‘diseased.’ This meant that registered prostitutes were subject to regular medical examinations. Acton finishes his analysis by lamenting the fact that despite the fact that there are ‘clandestine prostitutes,’ prostitution is not ‘thrown on people,’ as is the case in London.

Back to the modern day, and a recent article in The Guardian wonders whether Britain risks becoming a haven for sex workers and those who pay money for sex because its laws are becoming more and more out of step with those in the rest of Europe. If France adopts this bill, it will be conforming to the ‘Nordic method,’ where the State protects the sex worker, not the purchaser. In the UK, buying sex is not illegal, but soliciting and running a brothel, for example, are. What is more, the government does not intend to review the laws on prostitution at any near time in the future. However, despite this, Najat Vallaud Belkacem is rumoured to be meeting with Theresa May in the near future to discuss the law, citing the work of the English 19th century feminist Josephine Butler (who campaigned internationally for an improvement of the welfare of prostitutes – including in France), as an example in which the countries can cooperate.

This article originally appeared on Just A Platform: http://www.justaplatform.com/prostitution-france-new-laws-to-be-introduced/

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