Wednesday November 6 2002
Defending their honorarium
French prostitutes have taken to the streets, not to sell their bodies, but to defend the right to do so, writes Jon Henley
In their first national demonstration for more than a quarter of a century, some 400 prostitutes marched through the streets of Paris this week in protest at a government bill that will effectively outlaw streetwalking.
"Whores: neither victims nor criminals," read one of the banners held aloft by the women, most of whom wore white masks as they gathered outside the Senate to demand the withdrawal of the bill, tabled by the hardline interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Other banners proclaimed: "Sarkozy, it's hypocrisy, sex is therapy," "You sleep with us, then you vote against us," and "The state taxes us; the state criminalises us." Dozens of women wore stickers printed with an even more direct slogan: "Sarkozy, you give fascists a hard-on."
Mr Sarkozy's bill, which he has defended as an attempt to address "a menace to public security and tranquillity", will create a new offence of "passive soliciting", allowing police to arrest and prosecute any prostitute considered to be offering her services "including in the way she is dressed or her attitude."
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 the practice of standing on a street corner in a short skirt which will become punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine of £2,500 experts, social workers and women's rights groups 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."
Many streetwalkers fear the legislation will make their lives both more difficult and more dangerous; prostitution will be driven underground, into isolated and inaccessible corners where women will be even more exposed to violence and abuse from their clients.
"We are ordinary women, wives, daughters, mothers and neighbours," said Betty, 36, who had travelled up from Marseille with four colleagues. "We have a life beyond our work, we have our dignity too. Why should we be forced even further into the gutter, dumped among the dregs?"
Besides simply demanding the right to work, many of France's prostitutes are outraged that the bill makes no attempt to distinguish between women who decide for themselves, for whatever reason, to become sex workers, and those who are the victims of organised criminal gangs.
"Sarkozy should attack the real problem, the east European mafia gangs who turn young foreign girls into slaves," said Barbara, 44, a Parisian from the capital's main red-light street, the rue Saint-Denis. "I don't see how women like me are a security problem. He's got the wrong target."
The demonstration was the first by French prostitutes since 1975, when a national movement was formed to protest at the violent and exploitative excesses of the country's pimps and the police's refusal to prosecute them.
Claire Carthennet, a prostitute from Lyon who was one of the first to protest publicly against the Sarkozy bill, said: "If this law is passed, we'll be back where we were before 1975, when women suffered threats and violence. Sarkozy should go for the real criminals this is just politics playing to the gallery. It's like he pays more attention to the far right and to Jean-Marie Le Pen than to us."
In an editorial yesterday, the leftwing daily Liberation agreed. "The prostitutes, who want a legitimate professional status, and the associations who defend them but are far from sharing all their demands, are agreed on one thing this bill will aggravate the prostitute's condition by multiplying her risks, without really affecting the men who pull the strings.
"That is a heavy price to pay for the good conscience of a few chic neighbourhoods and town centres. Dodging the real problem like this is not only populist, but cruel."
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited
Created: November 14, 2002
Last modified: November 19, 2002
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