The French Parliament is debating a controversial law that seeks to penalise persons who frequently go to sex workers — with fines of up to €1,500 — while giving residence papers and work permits to sex workers who have been trafficked and illegally brought by organised gangs. There are an estimated 40,000 sex workers in the country.

The Bill has been tabled by Najat Vallaud Belkacem (36), the Minister for Women’s Rights. Her aim is to curb violence against women. Prostitution is legal in France.

She argues that the law should hurt men who profit from sex workers.

Sweden has a similar law and it brought down the number of men forcing women into the trade.

But sex workers there complain it has forced them to go underground. The issue of whether sex workers should be protected by law from pimps and predatory clients or whether they should be free to choose their profession has divided French society.

The battle lines are drawn, and celebrities, feminist heavy-hitters and those in favour of sexual freedom and the right to choose have leapt into the arena.

Contrasting views

Sylviane Agacinski, feminist writer, philosopher and the wife of former Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, equates prostitution to slavery, saying the concept is one of archaic servitude. “Men visiting sex workers should be punished,” she says.

Another feminist, Elisabeth Badinter, wife of Robert Badinter, the man responsible for abolishing the death penalty in France, argues that no one should dictate how a woman chooses to use her body.

Sex Workers’ Associations have opposed the law, saying it would not end prostitution but would just send it underground, increasing risks to women. The problem is not prostitution.

Women should be free to practise the trade. The problem is the men who profit from it, the coercion, traffic and violence that accompany pimping, STRASS, one union, said in a communiqué.

One group of men has issued a “manifesto”, an impertinent take on Simone de Beauvoir’s Manifesto of 343, which favoured abortion rights signed by women who admitted they had undergone abortions.

Meanwhile, several people have questioned the need to spend parliamentary time on the issue when France is experiencing a deep financial crisis.

If attendance in the National Assembly is anything to go by, the law appears to be a yawn.

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