What you need to know about France’s new prostitution law

The French parliament is set to finally rubber stamp a raft of measures aimed at cracking down on the “the oldest profession in the world”. Here are the main points.

What you need to know about France’s new prostitution law
Femen and other womens' groups protest in favour of the new law. Photo: AFP

1.       Fining clients

The stand-out measure from the bill and the one that has caused the most controversy is the law that will see clients fined if they are caught paying for sex.

By making the clients rather than the prostitutes the guilty party the reform will “turn the current law on its head,” according to French Socialist MP Maud Olivier, who has been the driving force behind the change.

Under the plan, clients will be fined up to €1,500 and up to €3,750 for repeat offenders.

It brings France into line with Sweden, which has had the same law in place since 1999. Some claim it has helped cut prostitution by half in the Nordic country, whereas critics claim it has simply pushed it out of sight of authorities, which is also the fear among sex workers unions in France.

A period of grace will also be introduced so clients will not immediately be fined, but they will be expected to take heed of the new law.

The measure has not only been criticised by prostitutes, who fear they will become victim to yet more “violence, stigmatization and poverty” but also by police, charities and rights groups, who doubt it will have the desired impact in reducing prostitution.

2.          Awareness classes

One of the new measures that has caught the eye is that those people caught paying for sex, will not just face steep fines, but will also be forced to attend classes highlighting the harms of prostitution and how sex workers are often victims of trafficking and forced into working on the streets.

The aim is to make the clients more aware in the hope it dissuades them from paying for sex.

3.       Repeal of the ban on passive soliciting

The second measure in the bill that aims at “shifting the balance of power” is the repeal of the law that made passive soliciting illegal.

This law had been brought in back in 2003 under ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy which saw prostitutes being fined if guilty of soliciting for sex. This had the impact of pushing prostitutes into out of town areas and forced them to dress a little more discreetly to avoid detection.

Repealing this law is aimed at reinforcing the notion that sex workers are victims and not criminals. It also allows prostitutes to act as witnesses in certain crimes without fear of being charged with an offense.

This measure has been largely welcomed by all sides.

4.      Help offered

The new bill will make it a right for all victims of prostitution to be able to benefit from protection and assistance.

A programme will be set up to help prostitutes get out of the profession and €4.8 million will put set aside by the state to help prevent prostitution and offer social and professional support for sex workers.

The move, although welcomed, has also been criticised by sex worker unions who believe €4.8million will be stretched too far and in the end mean the country’s 40,000 prostitutes will not receive any effective life changing aid.

5.       Residence permits for foreigners

France want to tackle the issue of the number of foreign prostitutes (Up to 80 percent of the 40,000 estimated sex workers) working in the country – most of whom are either from eastern Europe or Africa.

In a bid to help them escape the trade some will offered six month residency permits if they accept to take “the exit programme”.

Strass, the main sex workers union in France has blasted the measure as “blackmail”.

6..       New body created in local authorities

These new bodies that will come under the authority of the council in each of France’s départements will be tasked with coordinating action to help prostitutes and to tackle trafficking. Associations backing the new believe the creation of these new bodies will help create a “territorial mesh” that will help in the application of the new law.

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Nigerian sex traffickers jailed in France

A French court sentenced 24 members of a Lyon-based sex trafficking ring to prison terms of up to seven years for forcing Nigerian women into prostitution.

Nigerian sex traffickers jailed in France
Photos: AFP

Nearly all of the defendants were themselves Nigerian, in the latest case to highlight the growing use of African migrants in the European sex trade.

They include one of Europe's most wanted women, Jessica Edosomwan, accused of acting as a France-based “madam” to women recruited mainly in Nigeria's southern Edo State.

Edosomwan was tried in absentia.

Nigeria was the main country of origin for the tens of thousands of migrants who crossed the Mediterranean to Europe by boat in 2016 and 2017.

Many were women and girls lured to Europe with false promises of jobs as hairdressers or seamstresses, only to find themselves selling sex to repay their smugglers.

Seventeen women filed complaints against the defendants but none of the victims attended the trial, with the exception of one former sex worker who found herself in the dock for luring another woman into the trade.

The accused had faced up to 10 years' imprisonment on charges including human trafficking, pimping, money laundering and helping people live illegally in France.

Prosecutors estimated that the victims, aged 17 to 38, made up to $166 000 a month for the syndicate by selling sex in vans parked by the side of the road for as little as 10 euros.

A French mechanic who looked after the vans was among the 24 defendants.

Last year, 15 members of a Paris-based, female-led pimping ring known as the “Authentic Sisters” – many themselves former trafficking victims – were jailed for up to 11 years for forcing girls into slavery in France.

Similar gangs have also been dismantled in Italy and Britain.

The UN estimates that 80 percent of young Nigerian women arriving in Italy – usually their first port of call in Europe – are already in the clutches of prostitution networks, or quickly fall under their control.

Most of the women come from Nigeria's Benin City, a human trafficking hotbed.

Many told investigators they had taken part in “juju” or black magic rituals before leaving Nigeria, during which they had to promise to repay the money for their passage to Europe.