The French parliament early on Saturday backed a reform of the country's prostitution law that will impose a 1,500-euro ($2,038) fine on anyone paying for sex. A second offense would double the fine.
The bill will give France some of the toughest legislation on prostitution in Europe, similar to that of Sweden.
Under the new bill, prostitutes' clients will become offenders while soliciting itself will no longer be considered a criminal offense.
Previously, buying and selling sex for money was not illegal in France but the act of soliciting was, as was pimping.
The reform, which has divided the country, still needs to be formerly endorsed by parliament on Wednesday.
Movie stars like Catherine Deneuve, who played a middle-class housewife who chooses to prostitute herself in the 1960s film "Belle de Jour", is one of several dozen celebrities who have signed a petition against the law.
As The Christian Science Monitor reported, French feminists have hailed the new legislation.
“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.”
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.
Some 90 percent of France's estimated 20,000 to 40,000 prostitutes are foreign, mostly victims of Nigerian, Chinese and Romanian trafficking networks, the government says.
That is a very different picture from just over a decade ago, when only one in five prostitutes were foreign and organized crime rings much less prevalent - one of the main reasons the law needs tightening, proponents say.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)