Foreign prostitutes flood into France

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France, a country which sees itself as admirably relaxed on sexual matters, is struggling to answer the oldest question in the world. How should it deal with prostitution?

France, a country which sees itself as admirably relaxed on sexual matters, is struggling to answer the oldest question in the world. How should it deal with prostitution?

An influx of prostitutes from eastern Europe, Africa and even China, has overturned the cosy – some say hypocritical – consensus that has governed the world of vice in France for more than half a century.

The increasingly obtrusive presence of prostitutes on the streets of many French cities has launched a heated debate. Should prostitutes, and their clients, be repressed? Or should prostitution be recognised as a trade, as in Holland and Germany?

The right-wing mayor of one of the wealthiest Paris arrondissements – which has been overrun with very young prostitutes from eastern Europe – caused consternation a few days ago by calling for the re-opening of the legal brothels, or "maisons closes", which were outlawed in 1946.

The proposal by Françoise de Panafieu, the mayor of the 17th arrondissement, aroused a storm of indignation from left-wing politicians and some prostitute support groups, who accused her of wanting to "legalise slavery".

Prostitution is legal in France, but active soliciting and pimping are not. For many years street prostitution – mostly confined to the rue Saint-Denis area of central Paris or the Bois de Boulogne – was tolerated, even though soliciting and pimping were inextricable parts of the business.

The new wave of foreign prostitutes, run by violent criminal gangs, has broken down this informal arrangement. There are now thought to be 15,000 male and female prostitutes in France, with 7,000 in Paris alone. Many are illegal immigrants, from Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, francophone Africa and, more recently, China. If caught, they can be expelled, but the legal procedures take months and new girls arrive all the time.

The Interior Minister Nicola Sarkozy is drawing up a law to cut through the red tape and make it easier to expel foreign women engaged in prostitution. In the meantime, the sudden, visible presence of prostitutes in wealthy areas of Paris and other cities has brought hundreds of complaints to politicians. Some have called for prostitution to be made illegal in France for the first time.

The Paris town hall says that it will shortly call for a law which would make it illegal to buy sexual favours. Police in Bordeaux – at the request of the mayor and former prime minister Alain Juppé – are already making imaginative use of existing laws. Several men have been arrested while having sex with prostitutes in cars and accused of "sexual exhibition in a public place". Others have been formally accused of "soliciting others, with a view to sexual relations" – an accusation which is traditionally used against prostitutes, not their clients.

Nicole Ameline, the Minister for Women's Affairs in the new centre-right government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin, spoke to prostitutes on the streets of Paris last week and promised to launch an "interministerial" investigation. She dismissed the idea of re-opening the maisons closes but said that the suggestion had at least forced people to think seriously about the problem.

French prostitutes, and prostitutes' organisations, fear that the debate is already heading in the wrong direction. Any laws attacking prostitution, they say, would harm French prostitutes without curbing the influx of new girls from abroad. Claude Boucher, who runs the "Bus des femmes", a bus which tours soliciting areas to help prostitutes, complains: "Everything is getting mixed together. French prostitutes are now a minority on the streets. The foreigners are not prostitutes but slaves, victimised by criminals."

Marie, a middle-aged woman soliciting on the rue Saint-Denis, had a more direct solution. "They should just round up and throw out all these foreigners who are bringing our trade into disrepute," she said.