PARIS (AP) — France’s government is pushing one of Europe’s toughest laws against prostitution and sex trafficking, and other countries are watching closely. Advocates hope that a draft French law going to parliament Wednesday will help change long-held attitudes toward the world’s oldest profession — by punishing the customer and protecting the prostitute.
The bill, however, is facing resistance in a country with a libertine reputation and a Mediterranean macho streak, and has prompted petitions defending those who buy sex. Signatories include screen icon Catherine Deneuve —who played a prostitute in the cult film “Belle de Jour” — and crooner Charles Aznavour.
Prostitution is currently legal in France, but brothels, pimping and soliciting in public are illegal.
The bill has prompted debate about sex and sexism in France, where former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is facing charges of aggravated pimping. He denies wrongdoing, though his lawyer has defended Strauss-Kahn’s free-wheeling sex life.
It has also called attention to the evolution of the sex business, as the number of foreign prostitutes, especially from Asia and eastern Europe, has soared in recent years.
The proposed law would introduce a 1,500-euro ($2,000) fine —rising to 3,000-euro at the second offense— for the clients of prostitutes. They could also be forced to attend classes aimed at highlighting the harms of prostitution.
The bill aims to decriminalize the estimated 40,000 prostitutes in France, by scrapping a 2003 law that bans soliciting on the streets, and making it easier for foreign prostitutes to remain legally in France if they enter a process to get out of prostitution. One of the bill’s authors, Maud Olivier, says it’s about “getting rid the consequence of unequal and archaic relationships between men and women.”
Other countries such as Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, where brothels are legal, are especially interested in the French experience.
“If France moves, that could be the turning point for other European countries,” said Gregoire Thery, secretary-general of the Mouvement du Nid, an organization which says it helps 5,000 prostitutes in France each year.
The proposed law —written by a group of lawmakers from both right and left and backed by the Socialist government— follows the example of Sweden, which passed similar legislation in 1999.
A report commissioned by the Swedish government showed that the number of people involved in street prostitution in Sweden’s three largest cities dropped from around 730 in 1999 to 300-430 a year in the 10 years after that. At the same time, street prostitution in neighboring Norway and Denmark increased.