PARIS – French lawmakers were Friday to start debating a bill that would punish those who use prostitutes and has sparked fierce debate in a country famed for its liberal attitudes to sex.
Prostitution is legal in France, but soliciting, pimping, and the sale of sex by minors are prohibited.
The government says the bill is aimed at preventing violence against women, but critics warn that it would force prostitutes further underground and put them in more danger.
They say everyone should be allowed to use their own body as they see fit.
Activists and sex workers have staged rallies in several cities in France, and those for and against the bill will protest Friday near France’s National Assembly, the lower house, when the debate kicks off.
Lawmakers are likely to focus on the most controversial clause in the bill, which would punish clients with a fine of 1,500 euros ($2,040) for a first offense and more than double that for repeat offenders.
There are an estimated 20,000-plus sex workers in France, many of whom come from Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria and Romania; African nations like Nigeria and Cameroon, and China and South America.
According to the interior ministry, foreign prostitutes make up 80 to 90 percent of all sex workers in France.
A vast majority of these are victims of trafficking rings, and the bill takes inspiration from Sweden where a similar law punishing clients has reduced street prostitution by half over the past decade.
It also seeks to cancel the offense of “passive soliciting”, effectively shifting the focus away from sex workers.
Maud Olivier, one of the lawmakers spearheading the bill, said the billed was aimed at “dissuading clients from feeding the (prostitution) rings with their money and to make it clear that a sexual act must not be bought”.
The bill also puts forward measures to help prostitutes who want to quit, including foreigners, who would be given a six-month, renewable residence permit.
But critics insist that shifting the focus on clients will only force prostitutes further underground, and a majority of lawmakers from the main opposition UMP party are expected to abstain.
The Greens, meanwhile, are planning to vote against the bill, which they believe does not make enough of a distinction between victims of prostitution rings and independent sex workers who fear their revenues will fall.
Many of these have taken to the streets in recent days, denouncing a bill that is already scaring clients away.
“I’ve lost 80 percent of my turnover,” Priscilia, a 40-something sex worker in Paris, told AFP recently.
“This law is… killing me,” she said, pointing out that one of her clients had told her he now goes to the more discreet Chinese massage parlors.
Around 60 people, including Deneuve and singer Charles Aznavour, released an open letter this month opposing the bill.
Another more contentious letter released last month, titled “Don’t touch my whore!”, said: “When parliament gets involved in adopting rules on sexuality, everyone’s freedom is threatened.”
Lawmakers in the National Assembly are due to vote on the bill on Wednesday, and if approved, it will move to the upper house Senate.