France’s compromising position: Why a new law to criminalise punters rather than prostitutes is inflaming French passions

The bitterly contested bill to criminalise prostitutes’ clients is heading for legislative limbo

There was a time when women stood shoulder to shoulder at night on the Rue Saint Denis in central Paris.

They were mostly French, mostly middle aged or older, luridly dressed or hardly dressed in a style which amounted to a trade uniform. The Rue Saint Denis now consists mostly of sex shops, mobile phone outlets and wholefood groceries.

Until a decade ago, while taking the children to school, I would pass every morning a woman in her fifties, or maybe her sixties, who patrolled in a tiny skirt close to the Arc de Triomphe. The children called her “Madame Leopardskin”.

She is long gone. In 2003, Nicolas Sarkozy, then Interior Minister, devised a law which banned racolage or soliciting, even “passive” soliciting. It was an offence even to look like a prostitute in public.

The consequences were perverse. Prostitutes were obliged to dress like other women, which meant that respectable women, in certain parts of Paris, were propositioned if they stood still.

Another unintended effect was to drive prostitution  underground and push many French women out of the business. Up to 80 per cent of the estimated 40,000 prostitutes in France are now foreign women and girls (or boys), often trafficked by organised gangs, from Eastern Europe, China or Africa.

Now an attempt is being made to abolish Mr Sarkozy’s law. A bill due to go before the National Assembly last night would remove the penalties for soliciting, even “active soliciting”. France would become the second country in Europe after Sweden to transfer the punishment to the client. If the bill passes, anyone who pays for or seeks to pay for sex could be fined €1,500 (£1,250), or €3,000 on a second offence, and ordered to go to re-education classes.

The draft law would also provide support to help prostitutes to create other lives and to allow foreign women to remain legally in France, if they abandon prostitution.

The bill, though controversial, is expected to win approval when the National Assembly (lower house of parliament) votes on it next week. It may, however, be allowed to die in the upper house, or Sénat, with the tacit approval of the government. This would be an appropriately muddled and hypocritical conclusion to the latest in a series of attempts to regulate prostitution in France over the last 67 years.

The social and institutional hypocrisy is not just French. The present French law is similar to that in Britain.

Prostitution is illegal in principal but it is not illegal to be a prostitute. Prostitutes in France pay taxes on their earnings. It is illegal to run a brothel or to be a pimp or to solicit in public. It is not illegal to sell your body – or to buy one.

The approved brothels or maisons closes, for which Paris was once famous, were created by revolutionary law in 1802 and banned in 1946.

The 1967 Luis Bunuel movie Belle de Jour, starring Catherine Deneuve as a housewife who volunteers to work in a maison close, is misleading. It is set in the 1950s. The Joseph Kessel novel was set in the 1920s. Opponents – including groups representing French prostitutes and celebrities, including Deneuve – say that the proposed law replaces hypocrisy with more hypocrisy. Soliciting would be permitted. Anyone who accepted an approach by a prostitute could be fined. This is like, they say, allowing drug-trafficking but punishing drug-users.

Supporters – including feminist groups and associations representing former prostitutes – say that the bill would make French law more coherent. Since 1960, when it ratified a 1949 UN convention, France has officially regarded prostitution as a type of slavery and a form of violence.

The present law treats prostitutes, as well as their pimps and traffickers, as the wrong-doers. The proposed law, supporters say, correctly regards prostitutes as victims and clients as sexual offenders.

The traditional arguments – whether for toleration, abolition or prohibition – have to deal with a disturbing new reality. In Europe, the industry, whether legal or not, has been largely taken over by international criminal gangs. By discouraging the demand for paid-for sex, the new law would, it is claimed, reduce the trafficking of foreign women. Germany took the opposite course in 2002 and legalised prostitution. Since then the number of prostitutes has quadrupled from 100,000 to 400,000. Almost all of them are foreign. Most have probably been forced into prostitution.

In theory, the abolition of the Sarkozy law would allow Madame Leopardskin to patrol once again. It would allow “traditional” French prostitutes to reclaim the market share lost to foreign gangs.

But would it, really? Prostitutes’ organisations and the police agree for once. Punishing the clients would force prostitution further underground, they say.

It would make action against the international networks, now a €2bn-a-year industry in Europe, even tougher.

Using these arguments, the Interior Minister, Manuel Valls, is campaigning quietly to have the proposed law parked permanently in the Sénat.

“No prostitution please, we’re French”? Not yet, it seems.