PARIS – French lawmakers on Wednesday approved a controversial bill that will make the clients of prostitutes liable for fines starting at €1,500 ($2,000).
The draft law was approved by the lower house National Assembly, with 268 deputies voting in favor, 138 voting against and 79 abstaining.
The bill, which now has to receive the approval of the upper house, the Senate, was inspired by legislation in Sweden that penalizes prostitutes’ clients with the aim of eliminating the world’s oldest profession.
It was sponsored by Women’s Rights Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who hailed Wednesday’s vote as “the end of a long road strewn with pitfalls.”
Critics, who include some of France’s most prominent celebrities, say the legislation will simply push prostitution further underground and make the women who earn their living from it more vulnerable to abuse.
Paying or accepting payment for sex currently is not, in itself, a crime in France. But soliciting, pimping (which includes running brothels) and the sale of sex by minors are prohibited.
The new bill decriminalizes soliciting while shifting the focus of policing efforts to the clients.
Under its terms, anyone found to have purchased the services of a prostitute will be fined €1,500 for a first offense and more than double that for subsequent breaches.
Offenders may be offered the alternative of going on a course designed to raise awareness of the realities of prostitution and the human misery that underpins much of it.
In Sweden, a law passed in 1999 that exposes users to possible six-month prison terms and income-related fines has reduced street prostitution by half since it was adopted, but it is not clear how much of that trade has simply moved to the Internet.
Norway and Finland have moved in a similar direction, and Germany is currently considering reversing its decade-old experiment with legalizing brothels.
There are an estimated 20,000-plus sex workers in France, more than 80 percent of whom come from abroad. According to the Interior Ministry, most of them come from Eastern Europe, Africa, China and South America.
The bill has provisions to help prostitutes who want to get out of the profession, for which a budget of €20 million per year has been allocated.
Those include granting some foreigners six-month, renewable residence permits to make it easier for them to find other work.
As well as the issue of whether the legislation will lead to a reduction in the exploitation of prostitutes by pimps and people traffickers, there has been a debate in France over the fundamental principle of whether the state should seek to police the sale of sex.
About two dozen lawmakers from different parties signed a petition describing the bill as “a moralistic text,” while a group of celebrities and cultural figures also came out against it.
Among them was Catherine Deneuve, the veteran actress who starred in Luis Bunuel’s 1967 film “Belle de Jour,” which explores the relationship between prostitution and sexuality.
A group styling themselves as the “343 Bastards” issued a manifesto entitled “Don’t touch my whore!” and there was less predictable opposition to the legal text from Elisabeth Baninter, one of France’s most prominent feminists, who argued that it was based on a simplistic and stereotypical view of male sexuality and its relationship to violence against women.
The small proportion of prostitutes who work independently — and who pay tax on their earnings — have also been vocal in their opposition to a bill they say has already scared clients away.