Libertines and Liberties

France’s New Prostitution Law Targets Johns, Ignites National Debate

The new anti-prostitution law in France is supposed to make sex workers safer, but it may make their business more dangerous than ever.

A passerby found her body last week, half hidden, half burned, in the Bois de Boulogne on the outskirts of Paris. Her name is still unknown, but her occupation was easy to guess. Men cruise the roads of that vast park at night, sometimes almost bumper to bumper, to pick up prostitutes. It’s a dangerous business for the women and transvestites plying their trade, and this woman just happened to hook up with a killer. He beat her bloody with brass knuckles; he stabbed her multiple times and he tried to incinerate her corpse before, finally, he fled.

When the cops tracked down the suspected murderer (in his frenzy he’d dropped his glasses and cell phone at the scene), they got him talking in short order. According to the usually reliable police blotter coverage in the tabloid Le Parisien, the 21-year-old said he had just lost his job and “wanted to take it out on someone.” But he thought if he went after his boss everyone would figure out he was the attacker, so he decided to beat the hell out of a whore, since everyone knows no one would care.

Well, as it happens, for the last several weeks the French press and parliamentarians have been trying to prove they really are concerned about sex workers, whether they’re caught in the headlights in the Bois, cruising the bars on the Champs Elysées or pictured demonstrating their talents in GIFs posted online.

The debate has divided political parties on both the left and the right, in the majority and in the opposition. It has split the ranks of feminists and inspired a grotesque but much-commented manifesto by unrepentant chauvinists. More, perhaps, than in any debate since the legalization of the pill and abortion in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the French have had to stop and think about their attitudes toward sex.

That’s no simple thing in the country that gave us the word “libertine,” the literature of the Marquis de Sade and Jean Genet; “Gigi” (“Thank Heaven for Little Girls”) and The Second Sex; “Irma la Douce,” “Belle de Jour,” and, well, Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Although it’s not against the law to take money for sex in France, the new legislation—passed on Wednesday by the National Assembly—makes almost everything connected with the trade, including paying the money, illegal. The most controversial provision would fine a prostitute’s clients up to 1,500 euros ($2,100) if they’re caught.

That’s a big “if.” The proposal, modeled on a law adopted in Sweden in 1999, is supposed to reduce the demand for prostitutes, make their business less profitable, and thus undermine the organized crime networks that traffic the vast majority of them into France from Eastern Europe, Africa, South America and China.

In an impassioned speech supporting the measure, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the minister for women’s rights and spokesperson for the government, told of a Nigerian trafficking operation dismantled in Spain just last week. Among its victims, “three-year old children kidnapped and chained to a bed for two years to force their mothers to prostitute themselves.” It’s a system that generates $40 billion a year, benefitting mainly those who are trafficking people and drugs, said Vallaud-Belkacem. It is “a system that would not exist,” she declared, “if at the other end of the chain there were not someone who’d accept it and pay for it.”

The law’s most effective critics argue that the legislation, however high-minded it may sound, will be counterproductive in practice.

Morgane Merteuil of STRASS, a sex worker’s advocacy group, argues penalties on johns “will only be applied at best three times as an example, because they don’t have any other aim in reality than to force the whores to hide themselves even more.”

Many artists and movie stars came out against the law, including Catherine Deneuve, who first achieved international fame back in 1967 as a housewife-turned-part-time-prostitute in the surreal Luis Buñuel film “Belle de Jour.”

More down-to-earth opposition came from Médécins du Monde, the respected international organization of doctors best known for their work in developing countries. It has spent the last decade trying to help prostitutes in France, conducting about 18,000 interviews a year checking on their health and welfare.

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The Swedish law penalizing the prostitutes’ clients ultimately forces sex workers “into places that are more out of the way, more exposed to violence and more dangerous,” according to a statement from Médécins du Monde. In such circumstances a prostitute’s ability to negotiate is diminished, whether arguing about a fee, or personal safety. It’s harder for medical and social workers to find the prostitutes and check up on them; they grow more suspicious of law enforcement agencies, and are ever more reluctant to go to the cops when they are victimized.

Such arguments for and against prosecuting the clients might be made anywhere. But in France, much of the debate has become ferociously ideological in ways that are very French indeed. While just about everyone denounces the trafficking of women and men treated as virtual slaves, much of the most passionate debate has focused on the cases of independent sex workers, a relatively small minority, and whether they have the right to use their bodies—and sell their services—as they see fit.

The free-wheeling publication Causeur provoked sensational headlines when it issued a manifesto signed by hundreds of self-proclaimed “bastards” —all men—warning the government, “hands off my whore.” “We love liberty, literature and intimacy,” it claimed, “and when the state concerns itself with our asses, all three are in danger. … Against the ‘sexually correct,’ we intend to live like adults.”

But the most intense debate is not so much with or against macho posturing, it is among France’s feminists. The daily Le Monde discerned four or five distinct currents: the prohibitionists, who want to forbid prostitution and consider everyone involved to be criminal; the abolitionists, like Vallaud-Belkacem, who want to do away with prostitution but don’t want to treat the prostitutes themselves as criminals; the libertarians, who argue that the state has no business interfering with whatever a woman wants to do with her own body; and the rule-makers, who take a similar position but think some regulation is necessary.

As Le Monde points out, these positions start to get confused when the same feminists are asked to address other issues. Thus Elisabeth Badinter, one of France’s wealthiest citizens and one of its most influential intellectuals, defends the right of women to sell their sexual services but opposes the right of Muslim women to wear the veil if they choose. (Merteuil of STRASS, by contrast, proclaims that her organization is “pro-sex, pro-porn, pro-whores, and for the freedom to wear the veil.”)

So, will prostitutes be taken off the streets and off the Internet in France, and will johns be hauled into court? The law intended to accomplish all this is expected to pass the French Senate just as it passed in the assembly, but not until June, and it would not take effect until some time after that.

Meanwhile the traffic will still flow slowly through the Bois de Boulogne at night, and the women and men in the headlights will most likely remain nameless as they work there, and sometimes die there.