French senators decided on Monday to reinstate a ban on prostitutes offering sex for sale and scrapped a proposal to target clients of sex-workers with hefty fines.
The move, that was passed by 165 votes to 44 late on Monday night, completely revises a bill passed by France's lower house in 2013 that never took effect.
That bill would have repealed a 2003 law that made "passive soliciting" (racolage passif) a crime and would have instead pushed the onus on to clients, making them subject to a fine.
The draft legislation passed by the lower house, the National Assembly, two years ago made clients of prostitutes liable for a fine of €1,500 ($1,620) for a first offence and more than double that for subsequent breaches.
But the Senators voted on Monday to reinstate the law the sees prostitutes facing fines of up to €3,750 and two months in prison for selling sex. They also decided to drop the plan to fine clients.
That led to an angry reaction from those inside the Socialist government.
Health Minister Marisol Touraine hit out at the Senate, saying: "What happened … is absolutely unbelievable and contemptuous towards women."
Putting the blame on prostitutes rather than their clients is "regressive" and "deprives us of a major tool to reduce demand and therefore prostitution," she added.
"Prostitutes are still criminals and their clients are still king. The [pimping] networks have a bright future ahead of them," said the Secretary of State for Women's Rights Pascal Boistard.
Both versions of the legislation had drawn fierce opposition from sex workers who say they would simply push prostitution further underground and make the women who earn their living from it more vulnerable to abuse.
"They have no intention of improving the working conditions of prostitutes, they just want a law so that they don't see prostitutes on the streets," Morgane Merteuil from the French sex-workers union Strass, told The Local on Monday.
"But they don't realise that if you don't see the sex-workers on the street it's not a sign that there are less of them or that their conditions are better.
"On the contrary it's just a sign that they are out of sight and probably working alone in more isolated areas which is much more dangerous for them," Merteuil added.
"What we are really afraid of is that France ends up with both clients and prostitutes being penalized which would be total prohibition," the spokeswoman from Strass added.
The legislation could yet be revised again as MPs in the National Assembly will however have the final word when the bill passes to the lower house for a second and final reading.
Hundreds of prostitutes — many South American and Chinese, and many wearing masks — took to the streets of Paris on Saturday to protest the proposed laws.
"Prostitution is legal in France," said Franceline Lepany, who advocates for sex workers' rights. "This bill seeks to even further stigmatise prostitutes."
Paying or accepting payment for sex currently is not, in itself, a crime in France. But soliciting, pimping — which includes running brothels — and the sale of sex by minors are prohibited.
"We must go after the mafia, not these women," said Senator Esther Benbassa at Saturday's protest. "We have taken a step backwards. And all this to give society a veneer of morality."
The move to put the responsibility on clients rather than prostitutes was inspired by similar legislation on the books since 1999 in Sweden.
France's government argues the bill aims to prevent violence against women and protect the large majority of prostitutes who are victims of trafficking gangs.
However, the legislation sparked a fierce debate in France over whether criminalising prostitutes' clients would have the effect of reducing the sex trade.
Sweden's anti-prostitution law, which exposes clients to possible six-month prison terms and income-related fines, has reduced street prostitution by half since it was adopted, but it is not clear how much of that trade has simply moved to the Internet.
Dozens of celebrities, including iconic actress Catherine Deneuve, signed a petition against France's draft bill in 2013.
"Without supporting or promoting prostitution, we refuse the penalisation of those who prostitute themselves and those who seek their services," read the petition published in French media.
There are an estimated 30,000 sex workers in France, more than 80 percent of whom come from abroad. According to the interior ministry, most are from eastern Europe, Africa, China and South America.
The current version of the bill also calls for tougher measures against pimps and more support for victims as well as prevention efforts aimed at young people.