PARIS – French lawmakers will this week consider a bill that punishes the clients of prostitutes and has sparked fierce debate in a country with a long history of liberal attitudes to sex.
The bill, which the government says is aimed at preventing violence against women, has come under fire from celebrities such as Catherine Deneuve and Charles Aznavour, leading intellectuals and prostitutes themselves.
Spearheaded by Women’s Rights Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the law will fine clients of prostitutes €1,500 ($2,025) for a first offense and double that for repeat offenders. Prostitution itself is legal in France but soliciting, pimping and minors selling sex are prohibited. The government estimates about 20,000 prostitutes operate in the country.
Several hundred prostitutes marched through the streets of Paris to denounce the plan last month, waving placards reading: “Punishing Clients = Killing Prostitutes” and “We’re Whores and We’re Proud!”
Sex workers’ group Strass argues the measure will hurt prostitutes by driving the practice further underground. “Punishing clients is a harmful measure that puts the health, security and lives (of prostitutes) in danger,” it said.
Supporters of the bill — which could be debated from as early as Wednesday — point out that it also proposes a series of measures to assist prostitutes, especially those trafficked to France, including easier access to working papers, housing and financial support.
But opponents say its punitive nature is a step too far and intrudes on the private lives of French citizens. In a series of open letters, celebrities and cultural figures have urged the government to reconsider the plan.
About 60 people, including Deneuve, Aznavour and former culture minister Jack Lang released an open letter this month opposing the bill and calling for “a real debate” on prostitution “without ideological prejudice.”
Another more contentious letter released last month told lawmakers “Don’t touch my whore!” and saying: “When parliament gets involved in adopting rules on sexuality, everyone’s freedom is threatened.”
The letter was controversially dubbed the “Manifesto of 343 Bastards,” echoing another text published in 1971 by 343 women declaring they had an abortion when it was still illegal.
Surprising, among the most vocal opponents of the bill has been the philosopher and feminist Elisabeth Badinter, who has pleaded that “the state has no place legislating on individual sexual activity.” Badinter said she saw no direct link between male sexuality and violence against women, accusing some of having “a stereotypical view that is very negative and moralistic and which I reject.”
Her remarks drew a sharp rebuke from Health Minister Marisol Touraine, who said, “Feminism cannot accept that . . . the great majority of women prostitutes are subjected to violence and exploitation on a daily basis.”
Debate on the bill comes as many in France question the country’s long-standing tolerance of prostitution — with the controversy fueled in part by a prostitution scandal involving former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The onetime presidential contender is due to face trial along with several others over an alleged pimping ring operating out of luxury hotels in the northern city of Lille.
It comes after a deeply divisive debate on another contentious sexuality issue — the legalization of gay marriage. President Francois Hollande’s Socialist government legalized gay marriages and adoptions earlier this year, but only after tens of thousands took to the streets in a series of protests to denounce the move.
Europe is also in the midst of a wider debate over prostitution, which is legal in several countries on the continent. A decade after Germany legalized prostitution, dozens of politicians, actors and journalists this month signed an appeal to Chancellor Angela Merkel and parliament to abolish sex work.
Critics say that Germany’s legalization of prostitution has backfired, turning the country into a “paradise for pimps” who have exploited women from central and eastern European countries.