French MPs on Tuesday approved a new law that proponents say will protect sex workers by shifting the burden of the offense onto clients, but some prostitutes are crying foul.
The French union of sex workers (Strass, its acronym in France) called on members and supporters to protest the "repressive" bill outside the National Assembly, where lawmakers adopted the reform into law.
The legislation outlaws paying for sex, imposes fines for clients and overturns the existing ban on solicitation. In an unprecedented move, the bill also makes available €4.8 million per year to help sex workers quit the trade.
The comprehensive approach, which envisions an eventual eradication of prostitution, has earned support among other French organisations that assist and defend sex workers.
The law comes after more than two years of political wrangling, spurring heated debates – even among prostitutes – on the controversial topic.
The bill was authored by Socialist MP Maud Olivier - who represents the Essone department near Paris - who has made the fight against prostitution her personal crusade.
“Prostitution is violence”, the lawmaker states on her website, adding: “This poorly-understood violence is alone in not being recognised as such in law”.
Olivier says the law will help authorities tackle pimping and human trafficking, protect victims and help them escape the sex trade. It will also help better educate young people and clients of the harm caused by prostitution.
“The goal is to diminish [prostitution], protect prostitutes who want to quit, and change mentalities” she told France's Le Monde newspaper on Tuesday.
Strass and other French advocacy groups disagree. This week the sex workers union accused Olivier and other lawmakers of upholding an “essentially repressive” reform.
The new law does nothing to help sex workers – of whom there are around 30,000 in France, according to official estimates – and even makes them more vulnerable, according to Strass.
Around a dozen organisations, which included Strass, but also Doctors of the World and France’s leading AIDS advocacy group, further argued that the measures to help sex workers transition to a new life was misguided and underfunded.
The law stipulates people have to stop prostituting themselves in order to qualify for cash stipends and other aid. “How can someone stop sex work without residency papers [which allows someone to legally live in France], long-term housing, or sufficient cash allocations?” the group asked in a statement, highlighting the fact that up to 80% of prostitutes in France are foreigners.
The law nevertheless represents a historic leap forward, according to other rights groups.
Le Mouvement du Nid (Movement of the Nest), a group that advocates for the abolition of prostitution, but also helps sex workers access medical attention, legal counsel and defends them from harassment, has mounted a detailed and impassioned defence of the legislation.
It has hailed France for joining other European countries that have shifted the criminal burden from prostitutes to clients.
“Sweden, Norway and Iceland have already ended this historic injustice, which consists of punishing the victims of the system, while defending the impunity of those who impose sex through economic power”, le Mouvement du Nid said in a statement.
The group said the law was unprecedented in its “ambition to offer real alternatives to people who are looking to leave prostitution behind”.
Free to work the street
The only thing supporters and detractors seem to agree on is that the law could fundamentally impact the way prostitutes work.
The change will come at a time when traditional prostitutes are already struggling to adapt to the new Internet-based business models, and facing new forms of exploitation.
As the industry moves onto the Internet, a growing number of people are offering to work as intermediaries between prostitutes and clients on the web, according to observers.
Critics of the law say it will push prostitution further toward the Internet business model, making it harder to police.
“Prostitution on the street is already starting to disappear because of the Internet”, Mylene Juste, a Paris prostitute lamented in a recent interview with FRANCE 24.
She is among the sex workers who have rallied in the French capital in recent months to protest the new law. “This is the way I want to live my life. I want to be free to work as a prostitute, even on the street. I don’t want to be on the Internet”, she said.