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France passes law that makes paying for sex a crime

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France passes law that makes paying for sex a crime
Prostitutes themselves are against the law. All photos: AFP
07:25 CEST+02:00
Lawmakers in France definitively voted in favour of a law on Wednesday that would fine people caught paying for sex €1,500 as part of a raft of measures aimed at tackling prostitution.

The plan to fine clients of prostitutes has been on the table since December 2013, when it was first introduced to the French parliament.

But there it remained due to the fact that senators in the upper house refused to back the amendment.

But on Wednesday the bill, described as a major social reform, went back before MPs at the National Assembly, a majority of whom support the measure and who, importantly, will have the final word on whether or not it becomes law.

And as expected MPs gave the green light to a measure that women’s rights groups have long called for but prostitutes, who are set to demonstrate outside parliament on Wednesday, fear will only make their lives more dangerous.

Around 60 sex workers staged a noisy protest outside parliament during the final debate on the bill, some carrying banners that read: "Don't liberate me, I'll take care of myself!", while another poster read, in English, "Sex work is work".

Under the new law clients caught paying prostitutes for sex will be fined €1,500. That penalty will rise to €3,750 for repeat offenders.

The bill will also overturn a 2003 law that made it illegal for prostitutes to solicit for sex.

So the new law will effectively make the client the criminal for buying sex rather than the prostitute for selling it.

French Socialist MP Maud Olivier, who has been the driving force behind the change in law said it was “fundamental to reverse this balance of power”.

She said clients had to be made aware that their money feeds prostitution rings and that on the other hand prostitutes should be seen as victims of trafficking or the economic situation rather than “a commodity”.

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But prostitutes themselves say the law will simply force them to work in more secluded areas where clients will feel safe from the eyes of the police.

"We will simply face more poverty, more violence and more stigmatization," Morgane Merteuil, who is a spokeswoman for sex workers' union Strass, told The Local on Wednesday.

She said prostitutes had already seen the negative impact of the law even before it's been voted through parliament.

“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 sex worker in Toulouse, told The Local

“It will also be more difficult for aid associations and charities to contact the prostitutes so it will be harder for them to try to prevent risky practices, or identify sex workers who may be in trouble and help them get access to housing."

“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".

A group of French intellectuals also lambasted the move in an open letter.

They argued that talk of "abolishing" prostitution was based on "two debatable assumptions: that charging for sex is an affront to women's dignity and that prostitutes are all victims of their bastard clients."

They added: "A women who prostitutes herself, whether she does so occasionally or full-time, is not necessarily a victim of male oppression.

"And the clients are not all horrible predators or sexual obsessives who treat the woman as disposable objects."

(Femen and other women's rights groups support the law to penalize clients. Photo: AFP)

There are an estimated 40,000 sex workers in France, some 80 to 90 percent of whom are believed to be foreign, with many being victims of trafficking.

Associations working with sex workers insist the law is necessary.

Hélène de Rugy is Delegate-General at Amicale du Nid, a group which has, since 1946, worked with prostitutes told The Local: "We work with 4,600 people every year, and every one of them despises prostitution, rather than choosing it freely, as some claim.

"They are either coerced into sex work by their pimp, or they’re so desperate financially that they feel they have no choice but to continue with it.

"The bill will give essential support to people who want to get out of prostitution, and help them reintegrate into society with jobs, and accommodation."

By penalizing clients, France joins the likes of Norway, Britain and Sweden where the same law has been in place since 1999. But they are moving away from countries like Germany, Belgium and Spain where brothels are legal.

Those who buy sex over the Internet are unlikely to be caught by the new law, experts say.

"Dating websites are one of the main ways to connect prostitutes and clients," said sociologist Laurent Melito. "Then people call each other. How are you going to control that?"

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