French move to ban prostitution by punishing clients

Prostitutes wearing masks rally outside the National Assembly in Paris, 6 December Prostitutes wearing masks rallied outside the National Assembly

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France's parliament has backed a proposal to fight prostitution by making payment for sex a crime punishable by fines and prison.

The National Assembly approved by a show of hands a cross-party, non-binding resolution which is due to be followed by a bill.

Six-month prison sentences and fines of 3,000 euros (£2,580; $4,000) are envisaged for clients of prostitutes.

Some campaigners reject the bill, advocating prostitutes' rights instead.

Around 20,000 people are believed to be working as prostitutes in France.

France has been committed to abolishing the practice in principle since 1960.

The resolution said the country should seek "a society without prostitution" and that sex work "should in no case be designated as a professional activity".

It urged abolition at a time when "prostitution seems to be becoming routine in Europe".

In 1999, the Swedish government brought in similar legislation to criminalise the buying of sex, while decriminalising its sale.

'Unacceptable for everyone'

Under existing French laws on prostitution, summed up by French Roman Catholic newspaper La Croix

  • France officially aspires to abolition but the act of prostitution itself is not a crime
  • Prostitution is only liable for prosecution when it troubles public order
  • A client faces prosecution only if the prostitute is under-age or "particularly vulnerable" because of illness etc
  • Pimping is punishable with a prison sentence of up to seven years, and there are some 1,000 convictions annually

Guy Geoffroy, an MP from the ruling UMP party who sits on the commission, said France's political parties had reached a consensus on the issue because it was a matter of "republican ethics".

Nine out of 10 prostitutes were victims of trafficking, he said.

"From now on prostitution is regarded from the point of view of violence against women and that has become unacceptable for everyone," Mr Geoffroy added.

Yves Charpenel, head of the Fondation Scelles group which fights human trafficking and also advocates criminalisation, said it was unclear whether the bill would eventually be adopted.

"There is no consensus yet on this subject," he said, according to AFP news agency.

"Will the deputies who vote for the abolitionist resolution then vote for its concrete application? More than ever, it is necessary to clarify the French position."

'Marginalised'

Another advocate of criminalisation, a French-led men's initiative known as ZeroMacho which was inspired by the historian and feminist Florence Montreynaud, has published a manifesto against prostitution, gathering some 200 signatures across EU states.

ZeroMacho member Jean-Sebastien Mallet told French women's website Terrafemina that it wanted to speak for "the vast majority of men - hitherto silent - who do not use prostitutes".

Start Quote

If I thought that the prostitutes I know were being enslaved, I would no longer be a client”

End Quote Unnamed man in Paris who pays for sex

However, France's sex workers' trade union, Strass, called a rally outside parliament to oppose the proposed bill.

Several dozen prostitutes and supporters gathered under placards reading "Sex Work is Work" and "Prostitution - No Repression - No Punishment - Rights!"

Punishing clients would "deprive prostitutes of work that provides them with a living, give clients more power over them and push prostitutes to turn to intermediaries to be able to work", said Sarah-Marie Maffesoli, a lawyer for Strass.

In a letter to MPs, it and other groups accused politicians of treating prostitutes as "marginals whose voice does not deserve to be heard".

Strass draws a clear distinction between consensual prostitution and sexual trafficking.

A man at the demonstration who described himself as a "client of sex-workers" said he was "against enslavement".

"If I thought that the prostitutes I know were being enslaved, I would no longer be a client," he told Reuters news agency.

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