French lawmakers are debating new prostitution legislation that would penalise clients instead of sex workers. But instead of prompting a vigorous debate, the controversial bill has been met with a resounding silence among the political class.
The issue of curbing prostitution makes French politicians squirm. Lawmakers this week are considering a bill that would shift policing efforts away from sex workers and towards clients.
But instead of prompting a lively public debate, the controversial legislation has met with a resounding silence among the political class.
Spearheaded by Minister of Women’s Rights Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the bill calls for fines of up to 1,500 euros for people caught paying for sexual services, and double that for repeat offenders. It would not include jail time for clients.
The bill would also repeal a 2003 law penalising passive soliciting by prostitutes. Other components of the legislation include sexual exploitation “awareness” classes for offenders, and help for prostitutes trying to change jobs and establish legal residency if they are undocumented immigrants.
President François Hollande’s reforms have so far met with uniform opposition from right-wing and centre-right parties.
But the prostitution bill has not received anywhere near that kind of attention.
When challenged by reporters, the leader of the main opposition UMP party, Jean-François Copé, said Tuesday he was looking at the text “favourably” but did not indicate how he would vote.
Centrist parties, which are more closely affiliated with the right in the country’s National Assembly, have so far avoided publicly supporting or opposing the move.
Fines against the current
The silence hanging over parliament is not a reflection of the public’s lack of interest in the subject.
A petition against the law, reportedly signed by 343 self-dubbed “bastards” and urging the government to keep its “Hands off my Whore”, was met with widespread outrage when it appeared in early November.
A second, more level-headed petition appeared two weeks later. More than 60 French celebrities signed, including film star Catherine Deneuve.
They say the planned crackdown on prostitutes’ clients would only drive the business further underground.
Furthermore, the proposed legislation does not appear to be in sync with public sentiment.
A recent survey by French pollster TNS Sofres revealed that up to 73% agreed that the government should come down on clients more forcefully, but only 22% supported fining offenders. The large majority of respondents preferred an educational approach, including ad campaigns to dissuade clients.
More surprisingly, an Ifop study commissioned by popular feminist monthly Causette in February showed 73% of people favoured reopening brothels, banned in France for decades, as a way to limit and control prostitution. Only 32% supported punitive measures against clients.
Many lawmakers would much rather not be dealing with such a contentious social issue.
Jérôme Guedj, a Socialist MP and member of the parliament’s Social Affairs Commission, agreed that there was a general unease over prostitution legislation.
“The question is how far politicians should go towards interfering in people’s private and intimate lives,” he said of lawmakers’ reluctance to dive into the debate. “Prostitution is a complicated issue, with no obvious solutions.”
According to Janine Mossuz-Lavau, a professor at the prestigious Sciences Po University who writes on the politics of sexuality, the issue is a source of friction not just among lawmakers, but also within the academic circles she belongs to, and among feminist groups.
“Some approach the issue with moral arguments, and there are those that say it won’t disappear and prefer to be pragmatic.” she told FRANCE 24.
“Others take a religious viewpoint. It’s a minefield even among people who agree in principle that prostitution is wrong,” she added.
The bill, which enjoys support on both sides of the political divice, was introduced by one UMP member and two Socialist lawmakers.
It has divided traditional allies and brought foes together. The most vocal opposition to the measure has so far come from the Greens, who owe their presence at the National Assembly to their close collaboration with the Socialist Party.
The far-left, always ready to attack the mainstream Socialists, are the only parliamentary group rallying wholeheartedly behind the bill.
Easily-exploitable divisions among lawmakers, as well as potentially embarrassing links, have added to politicians’ self-imposed silence.
The proposed reform is expected to pass parliament, but Mossuz-Lavau said it would do so with less backing than its supporters hope for. Watch for political unease translating into a high number of abstentions, she warned.