Paying for sex in France: New law has been ‘catastrophic’

Six months on, has the new French law that hits prostitutes’ clients with hefty fines had any impact in France? Prostitutes say it has been 'catastrophic' for their livelihoods.

Paying for sex in France: New law has been 'catastrophic'
Photo: AFP

French police have had the powers to fine those caught buying sex for six months now.

But according to figures obtained by Europe1 radio only 249 clients of prostitutes have been caught and fined over that period. That equates to around 40 a month across the whole of the country since April.

However those who were in favour of bringing in the law say the figures are good news and prove wrong those who argued it would be impossible to enforce the law.

“People were saying that police would never be able to arrest the buyers, but they were wrong,” said Grégoire Théry from the charity Mouvement du Nid, which aids prostitutes and which fought for the new law to be introduced.

“People said it would be hard to get evidence and force clients to recognise their crime,” Théry told The Local. “The fact 249 clients have been fined is evidence the law can be implemented and enforced.”

While the maximum fine is €1,500 or €3,500 for repeat offenders, most of the 250 who admitted to paying for sex were fined between €300 and €400.

Théry however admitted that the benefits of the law change, which also included a significant clause that decriminalised the act of soliciting for sex – meaning the clients and not the prostitutes themselves became the criminals.

“It works well but it has not been implanted throughout France,” he said. He points to the fact that penalising sex buyers has fallen down the list of priorities during France’s state of emergency and the ongoing migrant crisis.

However some parts of France have been enthusiastically targeting sex-buyers. In fact the “capital of fines” has been named as the town of Narbonne on the Mediterranean coast. 

Some 50 of the 250 fines handed out since April have been to clients in Narbonne, apparently all due to the fact the local prosecutor has taken a keen interest in applying the law from day one.

“We are very willing to reduce prostitution,” said prosecutor David Charmaz.

Local police chief explained that officers will normally pounce once the client has stopped by the roadside, made contact with the prostitute, and after she has climbed into the vehicle.

Most of those fined in Narbonne were over 50 years old and all quickly recognised the facts, so as to avoid having letters sent to the family addresses.

Fines have also been dished out in the Bois de Vincennes near Paris and the Forest of Fontainebleau.

But has the new had any impact on cutting prostitution, which was its main aim?

“It’s too early to say. We can’t say at this stage that there is evidence that the number of buyers has been reduced,” said Théry. 

“It can take over a year to move from a new law to an effective criminal policy.”

Prostitution groups who fought hard against the change in the law argued that it would simply make life more dangerous for sex workers by forcing them to work in more secluded locations.

However Théry, whose organisation works with prostitutes in 26 towns and cities across France, said there is no evidence life has become more dangerous.

“Levels of protection for prostitutes have never been higher,” he said.

“They are no longer the criminals but the victims in this, they are offered alternatives and financial help. Foreign prostitutes are also offered residency permits and local authorities are forced to hold regular working groups with charities and legal representatives to improve the protection they give to prostitutes.”

But prostitutes themselves disagree.

A spokesperson for the French prostitutes union Strass told The Local that they had noticed a steep rise in the number “attacks and acts of violence” towards prostitutes since the law came in.

Thierry Shauffauser said that since April rates have dropped sharply which has “put prostitutes’ livelihoods at risk” and forced them to accept undesirable clients that in the past they could have afforded to turn away.

He also blasted the government for failing to provide the social support to sex workers that they had promised.

“It’s been a catastrophic law for our security and our health,” he said “And we demand it is overturned immediately.” 




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Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

Bikini, topless, swimsuit, wetsuit, burkini - what women wear to go swimming in France is apparently the business of the Interior Minister. Here's why.

Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women's swimwear?

It’s a row that erupts regularly in France – the use of the ‘burkini’ swimsuit for women – but this year there is an added wrinkle thanks to the country’s new anti-separatism law.

What has happened?

Local authorities in Grenoble, eastern France, have updated the rules on swimwear in municipal pools.

French pools typically have strict rules on what you can wear, which are set by the local authority.

For women the rule is generally a one-piece swimsuit or bikini, but not a monokini – the term in France for wearing bikini bottoms only, or going topless. For men it’s Speedos and not baggy swim-shorts and many areas also stipulate a swimming cap for both sexes.

These rules typically apply only to local-authority run pools, if you’re in a privately-owned pool such as one attached to a hotel, spa or campsite then it’s up to the owners to decide the rules and if you’re lucky enough to have a private pool then obviously you can wear (or not wear) what you want.

READ ALSO Why are the French so obsessed with Speedos?

Now authorities in Grenoble have decided to relax their rules and allow baggy swim shorts for men while women can go topless (monokini) or wear the full-cover swimsuit known as the ‘burkini’. This is essentially a swimsuit that has arms and legs, similar in shape to a wetsuit but made of lighter fabric, while some types also have a head covering.

Is this a problem?

No-one seems to have had an issue with the swim shorts or the topless rule, but the addition of the ‘burkini’ to the list of accepted swimwear has caused a major stir, with many lining up to condemn the move.

Those against it insist that it’s not about comfy swimwear, it’s about laïcité – that is, the French secularism rules that also outlaw the wearing of religious clothing such as the Muslim headscarf and the Jewish kippah in State spaces such as schools and government offices.

READ ALSO Laïcité: How does France’s secularism law work?

The burkini is predominantly worn by Muslim women, although some non-Muslim women also prefer it because it’s more modest and – for outdoor pools – provides better sun protection. 

Grenoble’s mayor Eric Piolle, one of the country’s highest profile Green politicians who leads a broad left-wing coalition locally, has championed the city’s move as a victory.

“All we want is for women and men to be able to dress how they want,” Piolle told broadcaster RMC.

Is this France’s first burkini row?

Definitely not, the modest swimsuit has been causing a stir for some years now.

In 2016 several towns in the south of France attempted to ban the burkini on their beaches. This went all the way to the Constitutional Court, which ruled that such a ban was unconstitutional, and the State cannot dictate what people wear on the beach.

The situation in municipal pools is slightly different in that local authorities can make their own rules under local bylaws. Most pools don’t explicitly ban the burkini, but instead list what is acceptable – and that’s usually either a one-piece swimsuit or a bikini. These decisions are taken on hygiene, not religious, grounds.

The northwestern city of Rennes quietly updated its pool code in 2019 to allow burkinis and other types of swimwear, which seems to have passed unnoticed until the Grenoble row erupted.

Why is the Interior Minister getting involved?

What’s different about the latest row is the direct involvement of the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. He appears to have no objection to topless swimming in Grenoble, but he is very upset about women covering up when going for a dip.

No, he’s not some kind of creepy beauty pageant judge from the 1970s – he’s upset about laïcité.

Darmanin called the decision “an unacceptable provocation” that is “contrary to our values”.

He has ordered the local Préfet to open a review of the decision, and later announced that prosecutors had opened an inquiry into Alliance Citoyenne, a group that supports the wearing of burkinis in pools.

And the reason that he gets to intervene directly on the issue of local swimming pools rules is France’s ‘anti-separatism’ law that was passed in 2020.

This wide-ranging law covers all sorts of issues from radical preaching in mosques to home-schooling, but it also bans local councils from agreeing to ‘religious demands’ and among its provisions it allows the Interior Minister to intervene directly on certain issues.

So far this power has been used mostly to deal with extremism in mosques, several of which have been closed down for short periods while extremist preachers were removed.

Darmanin’s foray into women’s swimwear seems to represent an extension of the use of these powers. 

Is this all because there is an election coming up?

Parliamentary elections are coming up in June and the political temperature is rising. It’s certainly noticeable that in Darmanin’s initial tweet about the matter he referred to Grenoble mayor Eric Piolle as a “supporter of Mélenchon”, although Piolle is actually a member of the Green party.

Mélenchon and his alliance of leftist parties are currently the main rival for Macron’s LREM at the parliamentary elections.