Last Wednesday, the French Assembly voted for a law to penalise men who frequent prostitutes. Any clients who are caught in the act of procuring sexual favours will be fined €1500. However, they may be presented with another option: taking a course that will sensitise them to the plight of women they are helping to ‘enslave.’ Cutting across divisions between left and right, the vote was 268 for, 138 against, with 79 abstentions. The minister for women’s rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, celebrated this as a preliminary victory - the bill still has to be passed in the Senate.
There has been very little debate about this proposal and the bill has been rushed through in the past few months. Opposition voices notably include feminist philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, who said this was a declaration of hatred against men and the state had no right to intervene in private sexual affairs. At the end of November, in Le Monde, she said: ‘Penalisation is prohibition and not abolition, it is wrong to equate prostitution to slavery.’
Historically, France has been tolerant of prostitution. Towards the end of the Ancien Regime, the Lieutenant General in Paris initiated a clampdown on brothels, but this was because the aristocracy were concerned about the debauched lives their sons were leading. After the 1789 Revolution, this form of commerce became informally regulated, but legislation was avoided, on the basis that it would taint the legislator. Prostitution was seen as a necessary evil, keeping the lid on the social pot. If wives refused sex with their menfolk, the possibility of obtaining sex elsewhere meant there would be no riots on the streets.
During the Parisian heyday, in the early twentieth century, the girls added spice to the cultural feast. Toulouse Lautrec and Modigliani, for example, were well-known users of prostitutes.
I lived in Rue St Denis in Paris in 1976. Day and night, prostitutes paraded the famous road, sometimes a hundred at a time. The interesting point is that in those days, the women on the streets were all French, earning legal money. Today, this is no longer the case. Out of the roughly 25,000 sex workers in France today, around 95 per cent are foreigners who come from Africa and relatively poor countries of Eastern Europe, like Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. Many are here illegally, without papers, and are, it is said, victims of violent sex-traffic gangs who force them to do the work.