PARIS — The women are difficult to miss, even for those unfamiliar with the shabby far-eastern edge of Paris’ 10th Arrondissement. Typically clad in candy-colored puffy jackets, dark leggings, and high-heeled boots, they line the busy Boulevard de la Villette near the Belleville metro station, watching and waiting. Morning and night you can find them either huddled in small groups smoking cigarettes and speaking rapidly in Chinese, or standing alone warily eyeing the boulevard.
Known as marcheuses, French for streetwalkers, many these migrant women hail from impoverished former industrial towns in northeast China. Hopes for better opportunities in France often prompt them to borrow thousands of euros for passports or temporary visas. But a lack of working papers and limited French language skills make chances of snagging a legitimate job here practically nil.
Instead, the women, who are typically between 35 and 50 years old, find themselves thrust into a bizarre second life as middle-aged sex workers, funneling their earnings home to oblivious family members who have no idea how their sister, daughter, or mother is actually earning a living in France.
“Generally, the Chinese women that we work with haven’t come to France with the aim of doing sex work,” says Tim Leicester, project manager for Lotus Bus, a mobile clinic/information center run by the French NGO Médecins du Monde that works with the city’s Chinese sex workers. “They are unable to find other kinds of work or they work for a few months or a few years as a domestic worker and realize how difficult it is or how little it pays, and some women might go into sex work as an alternative,” Leicester told The Daily Beast.
New legislation in France, however, aims to reduce the number of marcheuses and the estimated 30,000 to 40,000 other prostitutes in the country by levying harsh fines—this is the novel part—against would-be customers. Under the law that was approved by the country’s lower house of Parliament on Wednesday, but has yet to be passed by the upper house, a man caught paying for sex faces a fine of €1,500 ($1,700). For repeat offenders, the amount jumps to €3,750 ($4,270).
Despite a history of laissez-faire attitudes toward sex work—La Ville Lumière was famous for its deluxe brothels under Napoleon III—France has tightened prostitution laws in recent years. In 2003, for instance, the country banned what it dubbed “passive solicitation,” meaning that sporting skimpy attire or merely being present in areas known for prostitution could get someone slapped with a two-month prison sentence and a €3,750 fine.
These days, however, France seems to be taking a cue from its Nordic neighbors. Sweden, Norway, and Iceland have also cracked down on the world’s oldest profession by enacting laws that penalize the clients of sex workers instead of the workers themselves. Indeed, with the green-lighting of the new law on Wednesday, the French National Assembly scrapped the “passive solicitation” ban.
The new law also reflects changing attitudes toward prostitution. For Socialist Deputy Maud Olivier, one of the bill’s main proponents, prostitution is a global human rights issue and sex workers should be viewed as victims in need of assistance rather than criminals.
“Prostitution is a universe dominated by violence,” she writes on her official website. “Ninety percent of those prostituted are victims of pimping or trafficking.”
Anti-trafficking groups concur and hail France’s efforts to stamp out what one rights organization calls the “commercial sexual exploitation of women and children.”
“We applaud the law in France—it’s a true victory for women’s rights, it’s a victory for women’s equality,” Taina Bien-Aimé, the executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, a New York-based global NGO fighting to eliminate trafficking and prostitution, told The Daily Beast. “Policy makers are listening to survivors of the sex trade and looking at the devastation that organized crime and pimping and trafficking is dishing out.”
“The majority of women in prostitution, in brothels, massage parlors, or karaoke clubs are foreign undocumented women from the poorest countries,” she continued. “These are trafficked women.”
However, other NGOs, and some sex workers themselves, believe that rather than protecting women, the law does the opposite by driving prostitution further underground and leaving women vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
“They [trafficking victims] are already the most vulnerable and marginalized sex workers,” said Lotus Bus’s Tim Leicester who told me that very few of the Chinese migrants he works with are victims of trafficking, as such, although they may be victims of their pimps. “They are already under someone’s control, and this control is going to increase because they will have to be discreet and go into apartments, where it will be impossible for the police to intervene or for organizations such as ourselves to keep in contact with them.”
The proliferation of sex on the Internet further complicates the issue. As an increasing number of sexual transactions are conducted online, those who buy sex are harder to find and thus nearly impossible to prosecute. Moreover, according to Leicester, forcing Chinese sex workers online only opens them to further exploitation, specifically from those who take advantage of their lack of technological know-how by acting as a sort of cyber pimp.
“Because they don’t know how do that by themselves, they are going via intermediaries who put up an advert on the Internet and receive phone calls from clients and put them in contact with the sex workers, but take half of the money in the process,” said Leicester. “So they are losing their independence, as well.”
Some French sex workers have also spoken out against the new law, and on Wednesday, about 60 of them held a protest outside the French Parliament.
“France is love and freedom,” one sex worker told Les Inrocks. “We don’t bother anyone, and we have trust-based relationships with our clients. This is going to ruin everything.”
“My current clients are going to respect the law and won’t come back,” a marcheuse identified as Yue Yue explained. “I am the one who will be forced to move to more remote areas.”
Whether the law will help France’s trafficking victims or put Belleville’s marcheuses and other sex workers out of business for good remains to be seen.
On Thursday night, the neighborhood’s streetwalkers were standing along Boulevard de la Villette as usual. A few passing men eyed the women wolfishly, but didn’t approach.
On a nearby corner, a small cluster of marcheuses chatted beside a darkened Chinese grocery store. Their conversation was briefly interrupted when a fellow sex worker approached from across the street on the arm of a middle-aged man. Some women in the group nodded knowingly in the couple’s direction as the two briskly crossed the boulevard and made their way down a quiet side street.
As I neared them, the woman hurriedly punched in the building’s entrance code, and they quickly disappeared inside.