NEW YORK TIMES
Wednesday, November 6, 2002
Streetwalking, en Masse, for the Right to Tempt
PARIS, Nov. 5 The prostitutes of Paris took to the streets today, not to sell their bodies but to demand their rights.
Hundreds of prostitutes, mostly women, some men, and many in masks or other costumes to hide their identities, demonstrated in front of the Senate to protest a sweeping anticrime bill awaiting approval by French legislators that the protesters contend will damage their livelihood and harm their safety.
They came from Lyon, Marseille, Lille and other French cities where prostitution is woven into the fabric of everyday life.
They represented primarily the "traditional" French prostitutes, who portrayed themselves as hard-working, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens whose work helps maintain the moral order. There were transsexuals and transvestites among them, but the bulk of the demonstrators were simply dressed working women.
Although there were some women from sub-Saharan Africa, missing from the demonstration were the women from former Soviet bloc countries who in the past decade have flooded the prostitution market in France and throughout Europe illegally and often with the help of criminal networks.
"Sarko, you're toast! Hookers are in the streets!" some of the demonstrators chanted, referring to Nicolas Sarkozy, the law-and-order interior minister who is the architect of the crime bill. Some carried signs that read, "Sarko, free the hookers," and "We're legal. Leave us alone."
The exchange of sex for money is not a crime in France, although current law gives the French state broad powers to act against prostitution if there is active "exhibitionism" that damages tranquillity, public order and security.
The new law, which also targets gypsies, squatters and beggars, will make "passive soliciting" a crime. That means that a woman whose dress or attitude gives the impression that she is soliciting money for sex can face a fine of $3,800 or six months in jail.
Organized protest is a way of life in France. Just this week, doctors at private clinics throughout the country, garbage collectors in Lille and bus drivers in Bordeaux demanding higher pay went on strike, and undocumented immigrants demanding legal status occupied a Paris church. Still, the sight of prostitutes marching in central Paris in broad daylight was striking.
The prostitutes have banded together in a new organization, France Prostitution, that will represent prostitutes and their local associations from around the country. Their main complaint is that, suddenly, they will be treated like criminals.
"A prostitute's money will become like drug money: dirty, illegal," said Claudia Esclapez, 43, a spokeswoman for the Prostitutes' Collective of Paris who works near the chic Avenue Foch, in an interview. "All we have can be seized our houses, our cars, our bank accounts. We pay taxes. We receive social security. We are normal citizens. But they're pushing us to go underground. This is a death sentence."
Ms. Esclapez added that any attractive women on the street would be suspect if the bill became law. "Every woman in public space who is standing still, wearing a sexy outfit, her hair and face done up could be arrested," she said. "So women, beware!"
"Prostitutes are terrified," Gaëlle Téqui, a spokeswoman for Cabiria, a Lyon-based association to aid and and protect prostitutes. "They are starting to hide themselves in dark and narrow streets, in places where the police will not find them. So they are much more vulnerable. They can not call the police for help. They can be attacked by every thug with no hope of being rescued by the police. We want this bill vetoed."
The next step is for both the Senate and the National Assembly to consider the bill. If the two bodies fail to agree, the prime minister can ask the National Assembly to vote on the law, giving it the last word.
According to estimates culled from the French Senate, Europol and French research institutes, there are between 15,000 and 18,000 prostitutes in France, half of them in Paris. About half of the prostitutes in France and 75 percent of those in Paris are foreign. The breakup of the Soviet Union contributed to a flood of prostitutes from the east, particularly Russia, Ukraine and Albania. Africans, primarily from Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and French-speaking African countries are also strongly represented.
About 80 percent of all prostitution originates on the streets. Male prostitution, which became visible in the 1970s, has increased in recent years and now represents at least 15 percent of all prostitution in the country. Prices vary widely from about $30 to $50 in the Saint-Denis neighborhood, where prostitution has been practiced for decades, to $20 to $30 in the Bois de Boulogne, where illegal prostitutes often stand, scantily clad.
Asked whether the law would curb crime, Alain Corbin, a historian and author of a book on French prostitution, said, "Oh, no, I don't think so. In France there are so many laws that are poorly applied. There are excellent laws against pimping, but that doesn't stop pimping from existing.
"I don't see who will benefit if this law is passed, maybe the people who live on the boulevards where there are many streetwalkers. I guess for them, for their children going to school, it will be more comfortable," Mr. Corbin said.
But for the legal veterans, the law is a travesty.
"I declare myself as self-employed for tax purposes," said Cecile, 45, a mother of two and a 26-year veteran of the red-light district of Pigalle. "I will continue being a prostitute. It's my choice. I have two kids to raise. And I will send the fines they give me to Sarkozy."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
Created: November 14, 2002
Last modified: November 15, 2002
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