Will France fine the john or punish the prostitute?

That's the question roiling France this week as the National Assembly debates going after the clients who pay for prostitutes, rather than the prostitutes themselves.

Christophe Ena/AP/File
French sex workers demonstrate in front of French Assembly in Paris, against a proposal to penalize clients caught in the act of soliciting a prostitute. France’s government is pushing one of Europe’s toughest laws against prostitution and sex trafficking, and other countries are watching closely.

When it comes to sexual matters, the French tend to be much more liberal and close-lipped than their American peers. Here, it is largely considered a private concern.

But lately, sex has taken center stage of French public debate, splashed across editorials and magazine covers and featured on television news programs, as French lawmakers this week debate whether to penalize clients who pay for prostitutes.

A wide range of critics disagree with the plan, from Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), which says that penalizing the client will only push prostitution further “underground,” to a group of influential writers and other personalities who balk at the government legislating what they do in the bedroom.

The most polemic criticism to date is the “Manifesto of the 343 Bastards,” which appeared in the November edition of the magazine Causeur. The petition – a play on the "Manifesto of the 343," a document published by feminists amid a 1971 battle for abortion rights – features a stop sign with a hand upon which the words “Don't touch my whore!” are printed. “When parliament gets involved in adopting rules on sexuality, everyone's freedom is threatened,” the manifesto reads.

Though the manifesto is controversially brash, more mainstream figures have joined its side of the debate, including actress Catherine Deneuve, whose character prostituted herself in Belle De Jour, the 1967 film by Luis Buñuel. She signed a petition with other celebrities earlier this month calling for a “real debate” on the subject.

The government, in the meantime, says its initiative is neither politically motivated nor an attempt to control private lives, but an effort to protect women. If the bill is to succeed, France would be moving toward a Swedish model on prostitution, a move that many feminist organizations in France hail.

“For the first time in history we are tackling prostitution on the right side of the problem, which is the client,” says Anne-Cecile Mailfert, the spokesperson for Osez Le Feminisme, or “Dare to be a Feminist.”

Anti-client, pro-women?

Prostitution itself is not illegal in France – although various aspects of it are, such as pimping or soliciting underage women. The new law would add an extra punishment that places the burden on clients, fining them some $2,000 for their acts, a sum that would double if they are caught again. It would also give aid to vulnerable women, particularly foreigners who are trafficked into France and have no papers. The government counts between 20,000 and 40,000 prostitutes in France.

Maud Olivier, the socialist lawmaker who co-wrote the bill, told the French daily Le Monde that the point is to make clients aware that they are participating in the sexual exploitation of prostituted persons, which does not respect the fundamental human rights of France.

Ms. Mailfert says France has looked at the Swedish model because it's not prohibitionist, as in most states in the US, but abolitionist. Sweden passed a law making it illegal to buy sex in 1999, but only punishes the buyer, not the provider. It led to similar laws in Norway and Iceland.

Other countries have moved in the opposite direction in Europe. Prostitution was decriminalized in 1999 in Denmark and legalized in Germany in 2002 to improve the legal status of prostitutes – although it has provoked condemnation from some in Germany who say the country has become a destination for trafficked persons. Switzerland has some of the most liberal laws on prostitution, even opening a sex “drive-in” this year.

In France, a TNS Sofres poll commissioned by the women's rights ministry showed that while only 20 percent of respondents agreed with fining the client, 73 percent says that clients must face responsibility for their actions.

'No one can support a client'

The strong support for holding clients accountable might stem in part from the scandals of the French former head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who made headlines in the US after he was accused of sexually assaulting a New York City hotel maid in May 2011. Mr. Strauss-Kahn also will face trial with others over an alleged pimping operation in Lille.

The scandals involving the one-time presidential aspirant have raised many questions overall about gender in France. And in fact, one of the reasons the “Manifesto of the 343 Bastards” was so controversial is that one of the signatories is lawyer Richard Malka, who defended Mr. Strauss-Kahn.

The writer Frédéric Beigbeder, whose signature appears first on the Manifesto, attempted to explain the group's point of view in a Le Monde interview, asking readers to consider a chain reaction of prohibitions, from butter, to foie gras, to non-pasteurized cheese.

Their argument did not resonate widely, says Mailfert. “No one can support a client. Even if you don't want to criminalize a client,” she says, there is a huge gap between that and supporting one.

But other arguments against the bill have had more traction. For starters, prostitutes themselves marched against the bill last month holding signs in Paris that warned: "Punishing Clients = Killing Prostitutes."

And well-known feminist Elisabeth Badinter argues in Le Monde that “the state has no place legislating on individual sexual activity.” She went on to say that the bill itself is incoherent and unjust, since France authorizes women to prostitute themselves but prohibits men from using them.

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