French police turn attention to 'the pimp on the corner'

Police have arrested 72 pimps in co-ordinated raids in half a dozen cities in the past few days in the largest operation of its kind in France.

Police have arrested 72 pimps in co-ordinated raids in half a dozen cities in the past few days in the largest operation of its kind in France.

The operation is a response to complaints by prostitutes' support groups that pimps have been left relatively unscathed by a new law against street soliciting passed two years ago.

The raids in Paris, Marseilles, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lyons, Nantes and Orleans, were said by police to have dismantled two large Eastern European prostitution networks.

But police said the operation was aimed at the "pimp on the corner" - the men who directly control and often abuse the women on the street - rather than the organisers of the trade in human flesh.

The raids were said to have been planned since February, but they were timed to coincide with a deputation of prostitutes' leaders and aid groups to the National Assembly last Tuesday. The prostitutes called for the repeal, or softening, of a law against "passive soliciting" passed two years ago as part of a package of law-and-order measures devised by the then interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Prostitution remains legal in France. Pimping and active soliciting have been illegal since the late 1940s. Under the new law, "passive soliciting" - standing on the street hoping to attract clients - is now also illegal.

Prostitutes complain that this law - applied unevenly by the police - has disrupted the work of "traditional" and independent prostitutes. The women, and transvestite men, have largely been driven from their usual haunts in the Rue Saint Denis in central Paris the Avenue Foche, the Bois de Boulogne and Vincennes.

As a result, the prostitutes leaders' say, the trade has been delivered more than ever into the hands of pimps and organised gangs. Forced to operate in industrial estates, forests and small towns, the women say that they are now at the mercy of pimps, clients and a minority of corrupt police officers.

They also complain that the police use the new law to harrass the prostitutes themselves but spend relatively little time catching pimps.

There were 7,500 arrests of prostitutes in November last year alone but only 300 convictions. Far from repressing prostitution, the critics say, the new law has merely driven the trade underground and, in particular, out of city centres and bourgeois districts and suburbs.

Stung by these criticisms, Dominique de Villepin, who replaced M. Sarkozy as interior minister in June, ordered an anti-pimp drive by the police anti-prostitution agency, the OCRTEH, the Central Office Against the Trade in Human Beings.

In the past five days, as many pimps have been arrested as in the previous two months. Five have been tried and imprisoned, 23 others have been formally accused and 44 await a decision by the public prosecutor.

A police spokesman said that the raids had not targeted the "organisers of networks" but "the neighbourhood pimps, the front-line troops of the profession, those who watch over the prostitutes day and night and often subject them to violence".

Nonetheless, police in Toulouse claimed to have dismantled a large Bulgarian prostitution network and police in Bobigny in the Paris suburbs said that they had closed down an operation which exploited under-age Romanian girls.

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