EUROPE INTELLIGENCE WIRE (Financial Times)
Saturday, October 26, 2002
French war on immorality targets porn, prostitutes and pay-TV
In the red-light Rue Saint-Denis, a seedy Paris street lined with neon peep-shows and bulging women in bustiers and fishnet stockings, Angelique, a middle-aged prostitute from French Guyana, was fuming.
"They came by last night," she said. "Four of them in one squad car. They took away our condoms; one of us was sprayed with teargas. I've been here 17 years and that's the first time. They want to stop us working."
In his spotless if somewhat sweaty studios near Republique, John B Root, one of France's leading porn producers and, under another name, a bestselling children's novelist was full of righteous fury.
"No other western country is taking this route, trying to kill off a legitimate creative industry appreciated by millions of French adults," he said. "This is a step back into the dark ages, a misguided and anti-democratic family-values campaign taken way too far."
Nicolas Jones-Gorlin, the author of Rose Bonbon, a serious but disturbing novel about a 30-something travelling salesman's sexual relations with a series of girls aged between seven and 10, also found it difficult to contain himself.
"I was very, very surprised that the interior minister should write to my publisher," he told a radio station.
"I understand that the book could shock some people, though it's in no way an apologia for paedophilia. I could even accept it going to court. But not a politician intervening."
Paris once upon a time was princes, politicians and poets taking their pleasure in state-regulated brothels; it was books, from Fanny Hill to the Tropic of Cancer, outlawed as obscene in Britain; it was flickering but explicit films of Belle Epoque romps watched with impunity.
Paris was naughty: flesh and frou-frou were always winked at on this side of the Channel. But fresh from a crushing spring election victory, the new centre-right government has embarked on what its critics claim is a repressive and counter-productive moral crusade aimed squarely at ridding France of that centuries-old image of permissiveness.
Under a bill presented to the cabinet last week a new offence of "passive soliciting" (in other words, loitering on a pavement in a short skirt) will become punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine of pounds 5,000.
Earlier this month the hardline interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, formally warned the publisher of Rose Bonbon that the book was "harmful for young people" and was in danger being banned. And some rightwing MPs, having postponed plans to tax X-rated films at 93%, are now trying to outlaw porn even from restricted-access cable and pay-TV stations.
Elected largely on a tough law-and-order platform, the government has said its new prostitution laws part of a package which is also aimed at beggars, travellers and unruly youth gatherings are intended to address "a menace to public security and tranquillity".
Under existing French law prostitution is legal but pimping is not. France's estimated 15,000 prostitutes could in theory be prosecuted for "active soliciting" (a wink and a come-hither), but only 350 were last year. By in effect outlawing streetwalkers, experts and social workers say, France is taking a huge step backwards.
"The 1949 United Nations convention on prostitution, which France ratified, was abolitionist," said Martine Costes, a sociologist. "Prostitutes were not criminals but victims, to be helped wherever possible. This new law is prohibitionist. Putting girls in prison for prostitution is an extraordinarily retrograde step."
Prostitutes' groups, who plan a national demonstration on November 5, say the law is "unworthy of a democratic state". Worse, they say, it makes no effort to distinguish between the victims of criminal gangs and women acting of their own free will, nor to tackle the growing problem of organised trafficking, mainly from eastern Europe. It will simply criminalise prostitution, driving it underground where women will be in even more danger.
The government says the campaign against pornography on television, headed by the conservative MP Christine Boutin, is aimed at protecting the young. It cites recent surveys showing that as many as half of France's children have seen an X-rated film by the age of 11.
Another rightwinger, Charles de Courson, who tabled the porn supertax, said the government wanted to "destroy the industry's profitability in order to discourage further investments".
"Sociologists and teachers all agree that violent or pornographic films have an influence on society as a whole."
But Mr Root argues that this is a smokescreen for old-fashioned repression. Hardcore porn, he points out, is only shown late at night on encrypted or pay-TV channels, and parents can very easily prevent children seeing it by removing the card from the satellite or cable decoder.
"Porn is like medicine cabinets, cars and household cleaning products: it is reserved for adults," he says. "No one has suggested banning bleach because irresponsible parents have allowed their children to play with it."
He also argues that driving porn to extinction in France is an act of "outrageous economic censorship" that would encourage production of cheap, violent and mysoginistic porn elsewhere, to which French citizens would still have access on video and via the internet. Worse, teenagers would only be more enticed by a semi-illegal product.
The row about Mr Jones-Gorlin's book has set an array of illustrious French writers and publishers against a number of rightwing critics and child protection groups, some with links to the French far-right and Catholic fundamentalists, to which the new government is manifestly more willing to listen than was its Socialist-led predecessor.
Perhaps heeding the words of the respected League of Human Rights, which said that denying authors the right to address, in a work of fiction, social phenomena like paedophilia "would constitute a serious violation of the right to freedom of expression", the interior ministry eventually refrained from banning Rose Bonbon.
But no one is persuaded that what the lawyer and sociologist Marcela Iacub has called "France's new moral and sexual order" will not soon have other targets in its sights.
In Paris, the days of flesh and frou-frou may be numbered.
Created: November 14, 2002
Last modified: November 15, 2002
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