Ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn's trial revives question of prostitution in France

Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn on his way to the Lille courthouse to attend a trial where he is charged alongside 13 others for "aggravated pimping" on Feb 12, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn on his way to the Lille courthouse to attend a trial where he is charged alongside 13 others for "aggravated pimping" on Feb 12, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

LILLE, France (AFP) - In 19th-century France, where prostitution was seen as a societal necessity by Napoleon, French men would take their sons to a legal bordello to be initiated into matters of the flesh by a professional.

It was a permissive era for a country which, like all societies, has toyed with countless ways of dealing with the world's oldest profession, from King Louis IX's brief and chaotic effort in 1254 to expel prostitutes from cities to modern-day efforts to punish clients.

This endless soul-searching over paying for sex is once again under the spotlight as former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn stands trial for pimping in the northern French city of Lille. The economist denies knowing his friends organised for prostitutes to attend sex parties with him. But nevertheless they did attend, and their tearful accounts of unwanted sodomy, powerlessness and the desperation that drove them to the job has at times frustrated the lawyers whose clients are charged with pimping.

"This mustn't become a trial over prostitution. That trial must take place in the National Assembly," said Mr Karl Vandamme, lawyer for one of Strauss-Kahn's friends, Fabrice Paszkowski, who admits bringing prostitutes to the orgies. "We must stop this hypocrisy because there are two systems clashing... our system in which we have the right to see a prostitute and the forbidden system of pimping."

Prostitution is legal in France, but organising and profiting from prostitution - for which Strauss-Kahn and 13 others are on trial - is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

"When you know that prostitution is the third biggest source of revenue for organised crime, that it is mafia-like, human trafficking networks who import hundreds of thousands of young women, yes, it is necessary to have extremely severe punishments," for pimping, said lawyer Emmanuel Daoud, who is representing former prostitutes seeking civil compensation in the case.

Women enslaved by brutal criminal networks, drugged, their families threatened with execution if they leave, "that too is prostitution", Mr Daoud told AFP outside court.

He said there would be a "before and after" to the trial, which he hopes will see society scrutinise how it views prostitution.

"Do we want to teach our sons that if you have a sexual need 'go on, take 100 euros and satisfy it'? Do we want to trivialise the purchase of sexual services? A trial like this raises the question."

The trial has provided a stark array of views on the practice.

A brothel owner known as "Dodo the Pimp" shrugs when asked about the morality of taking 50 per cent of a prostitutes' earnings, saying: "Well I have to pay tax and electricity."

Strauss-Kahn's friend David Roquet casually refers to "a great massage" from a prostitute to mean fellatio.

And Paszkowski says he "has never had the feeling" that paying for prostitutes is reprehensible.

Many of these comments provoke laughter.

But the court falls silent as retired prostitute Jade sobs as she tells how she was forced to sell herself to feed her two young children.

Both she and Mounia, another prostitute, say they couldn't say no to Strauss-Kahn sodomising them, because they didn't have the power.

Strauss-Kahn himself says the thought of using prostitutes "horrifies him", apologising for the way the women experienced the act.

Mr Daoud believes it is necessary to expose all facets of prostitution to put off women who think it is glamorous and easy money, and men who think it hurts no one.

Mr Bernard Lemettre, a representative of an organisation which helps women leave prostitution, Mouvement du Nid, chillingly made this point in court.

"Repeated penetration has terribly traumatic consequences for a woman," he said. "A woman's body is not made to be penetrated 10 or 20 times a day."

Referring to these comments, Mr Daoud said: "This is also the reality of prostitution. It isn't pretty, it isn't a necessary evil, it isn't cool. It is seedy, it is sordid, it is misery and sometimes it has dramatic consequences."

He wants France to reconsider a controversial law to punish the clients of prostitution.

The Bill was passed by the Lower House of Parliament but was shelved by the Senate last year after protests from sex workers themselves and critics who said it would only push prostitution further underground.

"If we hit demand maybe criminal networks will see France as less attractive because there will be fewer clients," said Mr Daoud.

It is unlikely the question that has haunted humanity for centuries will find its answer in one trial, but it hasn't left those involved unmoved.

"Thank you for this moment of humanity, in a moment of seediness," said Mr Henri Leclerc, the 84-year-old lawyer for Strauss-Kahn, in response to Mr Lemettre's testimony on prostitution.