France lawmakers debate punishing prostitutes or clients

PARIS (AFP) - French senators will on Monday debate whether the law should punish prostitutes or their clients, as France resumes a divisive discussion on how to crack down on the world's oldest profession.

The proposed law completely revises a bill passed by France's lower house in 2013 that never took effect.

That bill would have repealed a 2003 law that made offering sex for sale a crime and would have instead pushed the onus on to clients, making them subject to a fine.

The draft legislation passed by the lower house, the National Assembly, two years ago made clients of prostitutes liable for a fine of 1,500 euros (S$2,240) for a first offence and more than double that for subsequent breaches.

But under the revamped bill on the Senate floor from Monday, prostitutes would continue to face fines of up to 3,750 euros and two months in prison for selling sex, yet the previous provision of fining clients would be dropped.

Both versions of the legislation have drawn fierce opposition from sex workers who say they would simply push prostitution further underground and make the women who earn their living from it more vulnerable to abuse.

Hundreds of prostitutes - many South American and Chinese, and many wearing masks - took to the streets of Paris on Saturday to protest the proposed laws.

"Prostitution is legal in France," said Franceline Lepany, who advocates for sex workers' rights. "This bill seeks to even further stigmatise prostitutes." 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.

"We must go after the mafia, not these women," said Senator Esther Benbassa at Saturday's protest. "We have taken a step backwards. And all this to give society a veneer of morality."

The move to depenalise prostitution and put the responsibility on clients was inspired by similar legislation on the books since 1999 in Sweden.

France's government argues the bill aims to prevent violence against women and protect the large majority of prostitutes who are victims of trafficking gangs.

However, the legislation sparked a fierce debate in France over whether criminalising prostitutes' clients would have the effect of reducing the sex trade.

Sweden's anti-prostitution law, which exposes clients to possible six-month prison terms and income-related fines, has reduced street prostitution by half since it was adopted, but it is not clear how much of that trade has simply moved to the Internet.

Dozens of celebrities, including iconic actress Catherine Deneuve, signed a petition against France's draft bill in 2013.

"Without supporting or promoting prostitution, we refuse the penalisation of those who prostitute themselves and those who seek their services," read the petition published in French media.

There are an estimated 30,000 sex workers in France, more than 80 percent of whom come from abroad. According to the interior ministry, most are from eastern Europe, Africa, China and South America.

The current version of the bill also calls for tougher measures against pimps and more support for victims as well as prevention efforts aimed at young people.

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