France’s lower house of parliament has passed a reform of prostitution law which imposes finest on clients, in a shift to tougher rules which has caused a split in the country and angered sex workers.
The bill, which passed 268-138 and will now go to the senate, will give France some of the most restrictive legislation on prostitution in Europe – a radical switch away from the nation’s traditionally tolerant attitude.
Those seeking to buy sex will now face a 1,500 euro (£1,200) fine, while the act of soliciting itself will no longer be punished.
Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the women’s rights minister, who has championed the reform, argued that prostitution in any form is unacceptable and said the aim of President Francois Hollande’s Socialist government was to suppress the trade altogether.
Proponents of the reform point to rising human trafficking as a reason for tightening rules. Some 90 per cent of France’s estimated 20,000 to 40,000 prostitutes are victims of Nigerian, Chinese and Romanian trafficking networks, the government says.
That is a jump from just over a decade ago when only one in five prostitutes were foreign and mafia rings were much less omnipresent.
Yet the reform has exposed divisions in French society just months after Mr Hollande’s government faced down a series of giant street protests over legislation legalising gay marriage.
Fellow ministers including Manuel Valls, the interior minister, have expressed reservations about being able to apply the law as it stands. Mr Hollande’s Green coalition allies voted against, as did the opposition centre-right UMP members.
Some prostitutes say the law, which must also pass through the Senate upper house for a vote early next year, will rob them of their livelihood.
“Already, in the past two weeks we have felt the pinch,” said a woman calling herself Sarah, who works in the Bois de Boulogne, a centre for prostitution on the outskirts of Paris.
“The clients aren’t coming … and the few clients that do come all ask me the same questions: ‘Is the law going through? What are we going to do?'”