French MPs have voted to impose punitive fines on prostitutes’ customers as part of a controversial new law going through parliament aimed at helping sex workers throw off the shackles of pimps and organised criminal gangs.
The measure, part of an anti-sex-trade bill, was approved by a show of hands in the Assemblée Nationale in the early hours of Saturday.
If the rest of the law is approved, customers of prostitutes will face a fine of €1,500 for a first “contravention”, rising to €3,750 for subsequent offences, which will be considered crimes.
The proposals, introduced under a private members’ bill, shift the criminal responsibility away from the estimated 40,000 prostitutes in France and on to their clients. Prostitution is legal in France, but soliciting, pimping and selling underage sex are not.
France’s Socialist government introduced the legislation after examining a similar law in Sweden passed in 1999, which supporters claim has reduced the level of prostitution in the country by half.
The French bill has been opposed and supported by different groups of sex industry workers in France, where 90% of prostitutes are foreign, mostly from South America, China, Romania and Bulgaria. The vast majority are believed to be controlled by criminal gangs and international trafficking networks.
Supporters of the bill, including gender equality campaigners, hope that punishing clients and making prostitutes the “victims” of the sex trade will discourage the traffickers and pimps. Opponents argue the legislation cannot be enforced and will drive prostitutes into the shadows, making their lives more dangerous.
A group of 60 French celebrities, including Catherine Deneuve, who played a middle-class woman who decides to prostitute herself in the 1960s film Belle de Jour, have signed a petition against the new law.
The French sociologist Françoise Gil, who is opposed to the new legislation, said France needed to come up with a new model for the sex industry. The bill, she argued, was not it.
“We have to invent a system which recognises on one side the right of individual prostitutes to offer their sexual services for a fee, and on the other the battle against the [trafficking] networks at a European level,” Gil told Le Point magazine.
“To now say that prostitution is human trafficking is an ideological position. One thing is for sure, France is going down the wrong road.”
However, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France’s women’s rights minister, who backs the bill, said the parliamentary debate and vote had “honoured our democracy”.
“Whether they [MPs] support [the bill] or whether they expressed reservations, each gave their full attention to the common goal: to respond to the suffering we have heard from prostituted people,” Vallaud-Belkacem said in a statement on Saturday.
The bill’s opponents have been accused of romanticising the so-called oldest profession in the world.
Vallaud-Belkacem added that the debate had allowed prostitution to be examined for “what it is and not what we imagine it to be”.
The new legislation, if finally approved, will create a €20m fund to help those who want to leave prostitution. Foreign sex workers who decide to leave prostitution will be offered a residence permit after six months.
The bill will be voted on in its entirety on Wednesday and be sent to the upper house of parliament, the Sénat, for approval.