Ex-prostitute ends long march for French bill to penalise clients

PARIS (AFP) - A former prostitute who walked 800 kilometres across France to demand that the government make good on its promise to penalise clients ended her protest march in Paris on Sunday.

Rosen Hicher, 57, an activist who campaigns to abolish prostitution, is protesting that a draft law to fine men up to 1,500 euros (S$2,400) for paying for sex was shelved by a committee of the French upper house Senate in July.

Flanked by a dozen current or former prostitutes supporting her, Hicher made a symbolic stop in an upmarket street near the Champs-Elysees where she first prostituted herself, before making her way to the Senate to call on lawmakers "to wake up and finally act."

Prostitution "is not a right, no one has the right to buy a woman or sell her," she said.

"If we want an end to prostitution, we must penalise clients," she added at the end of a march that began on September 3 in the western city of Saintes.

The draft anti-prostitution law, which is inspired by similar legislation in Sweden which penalises prostitutes' clients with the aim of eliminating the world's oldest profession, was initially adopted by the lower house National Assembly in December last year.

But critics fear the legislation will simply push prostitution further underground and make the women who earn their living from it more vulnerable to abuse.

Paying or accepting payment for sex currently is not, in itself, a crime in France. But soliciting, pimping (which includes running brothels) and the sale of sex by minors are prohibited.

The new bill decriminalises soliciting while shifting the focus of policing efforts to the clients.

The government says it is aimed at preventing violence against women and protecting the large majority of prostitutes who are victims of trafficking gangs.

Pascale Boistard, minister for women's rights, also joined Hicher on the last stretch of her march.

"The Senate must re-visit this law. A large majority of the French are in favour," Boistard said, hoping that the upper house would re-examine the bill early next year.

Hicher was a prostitute for 22 years before managing to quit in 2009.

She said many people had come to support her along her march, including men who had occasionally or regularly paid for sex and acknowledged that this had represented "a sexual failure, a failure in their lives."

Her arrival in Paris coincided with a column in the Journal du Dimanche weekly calling for the Senate to re-visit and even reinforce the bill, signed by elected officials from around France including Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo.

Two of Hicher's six children also accompanied their mother on her last Paris stretch.

"It's not over. As long as she doesn't get what she wants, she will continue," said her 17-year-old daughter, "proud" of her mother.

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