France flirts with ban on buying sex

Parliamentarians in France are to begin debating a bill this week that aims to inflict a knockout blow to the country's sex trade.

Inspired by Swedish policies, two parliamentarians from the ruling Socialist Party have drafted legislation that aims to shift the stigma around prostitution, by penalizing the customers - rather than the sellers - of sex.

"There would be no prostitution without clients - that goes without saying. But we also know there will always be clients for prostitution. Our ambition should be to try to reduce the number," Maud Olivier, one of the authors of the bill, wrote in a report to parliament.

To dampen the ardour of customers the bill proposes to fine those caught procuring sex 1,500 euros (2,030 dollars), require them to attend a course about the conditions in which prostitution is carried out, or both. For repeat offenders, the fine would be doubled.

Meanwhile, the estimated 20,000-40,000 people who sell sex in France - on the street, in clubs and over the internet - would no longer face fines for touting.

Instead, they would be offered help to quit prostitution, find housing and work, and, for foreign nationals, to become legal French residents.

For years Europe has grappled with a surge in the trafficking of women from former Eastern bloc countries and Africa for work in the sex trade.

The proportion of foreigners among those selling sex in France has shot up from 20 per cent in 1990 to 90 per cent currently, according to statistics cited in Olivier's report.

Other countries have attempted differing remedies.

Germany legalized prostitution in 2001, believing that giving sex workers the right social benefits would boost their status. Critics say the move created a pull effect on sex trafficking. Only a fraction of the country's estimated 400,000 sex workers registered for benefits.

Sweden took the opposite tack in 1999, when it criminalized paying for sex, even putting some customers in jail.

Over a decade later the number of sex workers on Swedish streets has fallen dramatically, inspiring Iceland, Finland and Norway to adopt similar laws.

The authors of the French bill have framed the debate as one of gender equality: 85 per cent of sex workers in France are women, while 99 of the clients are men.

But 85 organizations and groups that represent sex workers or work with them have warned that penalizing clients will "make prostitutes more vulnerable by forcing them further underground, further from support and health associations."

In October, a group of around 300 prostitutes took to the streets, waving banners proclaiming that penalizing clients meant "murder" for sex workers.

A group of celebrity authors, actors, singers and socialites, led by literary critic Frederic Beigbeder, came out swinging against the legislation as an attack on "liberty, literature and intimacy."

"We believe everyone has the right to sell their charms - and to even enjoy it," declared the group, calling itself the 343 Bastards, in a deliberately provocative manifesto entitled "Hands off my whore."

The manifesto, which was a nod both to the 1971 abortion rights manifesto of "343 bitches" led by feminist author Simone de Beauvoir, and to the 1980s slogan of anti-racism group SOS Racisme, "Hands off my buddy," sparked a firestorm of debate.

"The 343 Bitches were demanding the right to dispose freely of their bodies. The 343 Bastards are demanding the right to dispose of the bodies of others," was the pithy put-down from Women's Rights Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.

Polls show only one in five French people in favour of banning the purchase of sex. The bill, which has broad cross-party support, is expected to pass nonetheless.

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