A divisive bill that punishes the clients of prostitutes is due to go before lawmakers in France's National Assembly on Wednesday, in the latest controversial social reform by President Francois Hollande's government.
The bill, which the government says is aimed at preventing violence against women, has come under fire from celebrities like Catherine Deneuve and Charles Aznavour, as well as leading intellectuals and prostitutes themselves.
Spearheaded by Women's Rights Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the law will fine clients of prostitutes €1,500 ($2,025) for a first offence and double that for repeat offenders.
Prostitution itself is legal in France but soliciting, pimping and minors selling sex, are prohibited. The government estimates that between 20,000 and 40,000 prostitutes operate in France, at least 80 percent of whom are from abroad.
Several hundred prostitutes marched through the streets of Paris to denounce the plan last month, waving placards reading: “Punishing Clients = Killing Prostitutes” and “We're Whores and We're Proud!”
Sex workers' union Strass argues the measure will hurt prostitutes by driving the practice further underground.
“The prostitutes will be forced to work in remote places, hidden away so as not to risk being discovered by the police. This will simply mean they will be more exposed to violence, theft and rape,” Manon, a 26-year-old, who has worked as a prostitute in the city of Toulouse for the last five years, told The Local.
“It is already difficult to go to the police and make a complaint and this law would make it even harder. Those who attack or rape prostitutes know this and the number of attacks and rapes will only increase.” (Click below to read more of what Manon had to say)
Supporters of the bill point out that it also proposes a series of measures to assist prostitutes, especially those trafficked to France, including easier access to working papers, housing and financial support.
Hélène de Rugy, from Amicale du Nid, a group which offers support to sex workers, is backing the bill.
“With prostitution, there are no sellers and buyers, only victims and perpetrators,” she told The Local.
The new legislation would also overturn Nicolas Sarkozy's 2003 ban on “passive soliciting”, which was also deemed to have made life more dangerous for sex workers because it pushed them out of city-centre streets to more isolated locations.
Many were forced to wear casual clothing, like jeans and trainers, to disguise their activity.
“Hands off my whore”
Opponents of the bill, however, say its punitive nature is a step too far and intrudes on the private lives of French citizens.
In a series of open letters, celebrities and cultural figures have urged the government to reconsider the plan.
About 60 people, including Deneuve, Aznavour and former culture minister Jack Lang published an open letter this month opposing the bill and calling for “a real debate” on prostitution “without ideological prejudice”.
Another more contentious letter published last month and entitled “Hands off my whore!”, declared: “When parliament gets involved in adopting rules on sexuality, everyone's freedom is threatened.”
The letter was controversially dubbed the “Manifesto of the 343 Bastards”, echoing another text published in 1971 by 343 women declaring they had had an abortion when it was still illegal in France.
Surprising some, among the most vocal opponents of the bill has been the philosopher and feminist Elisabeth Badinter, who has pleaded that “the state has no place legislating on individual sexual activity.”
Badinter said she saw no direct link between male sexuality and violence against women, accusing some of having “a stereotypical view that is very negative and moralistic and which I reject.”
“We welcome the position taken by France”
Her remarks drew a sharp rebuke from Health Minister Marisol Touraine.
“Feminism cannot accept that… the great majority of women prostitutes are subjected to violence and exploitation on a daily basis,” Touraine said.
The progress of the bill will be watched closely from anti-prostitution groups outside France.
A decade after Germany legalized prostitution, dozens of politicians, actors and journalists this month signed an appeal to Chancellor Angela Merkel and parliament to abolish sex work.
Critics say that Germany's legalization of prostitution has backfired, turning the country into a “paradise for pimps” who have exploited women from central and eastern European countries.