There is a bunch of well-known "bastards" in France who are keen on having sex with prostituted women. Don't take my word for it: that's how they describe themselves in a declaration insisting on their right to buy sex. The "bastards" (salauds in French) are so cross about a proposed law which would impose fines on men who pay for sex that they've decided to out themselves in a monthly magazine. The "manifesto of 343 bastards" has been signed by writers, actors, and commentators who say they have used, or are likely to use, "the services of prostitutes" – and aren't ashamed of it.
The question of whether anyone (although it's mostly men) should be able to buy sex is shaping up to become one of the great battles of the 21st century. France's socialist government intends to follow the example of some Scandinavian countries, which have criminalised "punters".
If you believe in equality, it's hard to see why men should be allowed to pay to use women's bodies, especially against a background of alarming levels of domestic and sexual violence. Inequality is at the heart of all these abuses, which is why it's rare these days to hear men boast about using prostituted women. The comedian Russell Brand is an exception in Anglo-Saxon culture; in his autobiography, he recalled a holiday with his father in South-east Asia where he had sex with "loads" of prostituted women. "They didn't seem enslaved or exploited," the energetic sex tourist observed.
Until recently, many French people took the view that sex and prostitution were private matters. But the forthcoming trial of the politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who faces charges of aggravated pimping in connection with an alleged prostitution ring, has shone an unforgiving light on this aspect of French culture. France is a modern European country with a commitment to gender equality, so it was jarring to hear Strauss-Kahn's lawyer protest that his client was guilty of nothing more than "simple libertine activity".
Now it turns out that the lawyer, Richard Malka, is one of the men who have signed the manifesto. Its slogan – "Don't touch my whore!" – is so inflammatory that it has caused outrage in France. Seldom has a single sentence been so revealing, exposing an assumption of patriarchal ownership which has backfired on the signatories.
There is another reason for the outrage. In 1971, a group of well-known women led by the author Simone de Beauvoir announced publicly that they'd had illegal abortions. A satirical magazine described them as "343 bitches", but they are credited with changing the French law on abortion. Now the "bastards" are trying to appropriate this great feminist campaign for their own ends; a demand by women to control their own bodies has been turned, perversely, into a demand by men to control women's bodies. I don't like political name-calling but I can't say I blame anyone who takes these "salauds" at their own estimation.