THE OBSERVER
Sunday January 19, 2003

Hannah Godfrey


French working girls lose their privileged role

Paris's sex trade is threatened by a new conservatism and a wave of East European prostitutes. Hannah Godfrey talks to the streetwalkers fighting to save their livelihoods

Casual visitors to the Bois de Boulogne at night find they have wandered into a surreal enchanted wood. Among the trees gleam exposed flesh, bottoms and breasts are displayed in bizarre leather arrangements, thighs spring from high boots — here almost all the prostitutes are men. Some have been operated on but most are pumped full of hormones and silicone.

Behind this carnivalesque scene is a rigid organisation. Each section of each alley relates to a geographical area — Colombian, Brazilian, Peruvian, North African, Spanish, and so on.

On a secluded street in another part of town are transvestites, mainly from Algiers. Prostitution in Paris is a complex industry, with tight internal regulation.

Pimps are behind most of what goes on along the Maraichaux — a ring road now superseded by the périphérique — which is worked by girls from Africa and Eastern Europe. But many of Paris's prostitutes work for themselves. However, as of next week, every person who, 'by any method, even passive, by their way or dressing or their attitude, publicly solicits another individual to have sexual relations with them in exchange for money', will be liable for a two-month prison sentence and a fine of £2,500.

In four lines of legislation, which make no distinction between prostitutes who are overtly exploited and 'traditional' sex workers who work independently, the face of Paris is set to dramatically change. It is part of a tough new crime Bill being introduced by Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister, cracking down not only on prostitutes but also beggars, gypsies and young boys who hang around the stairwells of residential buildings. The drastic measures are a response to the fear of crime that helped to sweep a right-wing government to power last year. Prostitutes are among those singled out, because the influx of girls from Eastern Europe and Africa working the streets has anti-social consequences.

Most traditional prostitutes respect a self-imposed code of conduct, which includes not servicing their clients in residential areas or leaving condoms in the street.

But young immigrant girls, under pressure from their pimps to turn as many tricks as is possible, often do not observe these courtesies. There is a measure of resentment towards the filles de l'est, who, it is felt, are giving the profession a bad name.

Complaints from residents have led to repressive measures, first by a number of mayors, now by central government. The streetwalkers believe the authorities should focus on eradicating mafia networks that use girls as little more than slaves, rather than criminalising women who have chosen to make their living selling sex.

For most prostitutes, Sarkozy's bill seems a throwback to the bad old days. Brothels, where girls had little freedom and were pitifully exploited, were outlawed at the end of the Second World War and, following a campaign by streetwalkers and feminists, there was a crackdown on pimps in the mid-1970s.

This legislation led to a rise in the number of girls working for themselves, bringing them out of the underworld. In 1994 the law under which a man living with a prostitute risked being imprisoned for living off the proceeds of prostitution, even if he could give proof of his earnings, was repealed, opening the way for women working as prostitutes to have family lives. Many have carved out an almost bourgeois existence, with families and mortgages, by achieving the sought-after status of self-employment.

But the new threat to their livelihoods has re-awakened political activism. France Prostitution was founded last August in response to rumours of the forthcoming Bill. It now has 1,000 members.

The principal is that prostitutes are citizens with rights and duties. Its spokeswoman Claudia, a transsexual, believes that women who choose prostitution gain a dignity they lacked in an unloving or abusive marriage, or in a relationship where, on a tacit basis, financial support was exchanged for sex.

France Prostitution does not recognise the girls from Eastern Europe as prostitutes but as victims, because they have been coerced into the profession.

The president of France Prostitution is Michelle, 58, who has witnessed the evolution of prostitution from a situation in which it was synonymous with organised crime, to the emancipation of working girls. Seeing that the pendulum is about to swing back, she has become a campaigner: 'Not for myself, I'm on the way out anyway, but for the younger girls.'

Michelle works in the Bois de Boulogne — a place for female prostitutes in daylight. She has always worked for herself. Like most women who work here or in the Bois de Vincennes, on the other side of town, she takes her clients to a van and charges the going rate: 13 for fellatio and 25 for sexual intercourse.

She said prostitutes are more often the targets than the perpetrators of crime. 'Because we no longer have pimps, we are easy targets for delinquents who want to steal our money. The transvestites, working at night, are men; they know how to fight.'

She is shocked that prostitutes are again going to find themselves criminalised — the more they are forced to work out of view, the more they are in need of the protection pimps can offer — and is clear about her own motivation: 'It was something I could do, no woman is born to be a prostitute. It's a way to get by. My parents owned a brasserie, and I saw how they slaved away from dawn till dusk. I didn't want to do that.'

Michelle frequently ran away from her restrictive home life when, finding herself on the streets, she would get herself taken out to dinner by men and sleep with them in return. Her horrified parents sent her to a school for delinquents whereshe met young girls who were working as prostitutes. 'They taught me the ropes, and having met them I no longer felt that this was something that only other people did.' At 16 she decided to be a prostitute. 'I could take Pierre's money and spend it with Paul,' she says. 'I had fun.'

She became pregnant, by a mobster who was shot dead before the baby was born. Her son discovered what she did for a living at nine and asked her: 'Do you kiss them?' The answer was no. 'Well, that's all right then,' he said.

Now a 35-year-old actor, he still lives with her. 'He's come out of all this very well.'

After 40 years as a prostitute, early years of back-street abortions, nights in 'filthy, overcrowded police cells' and physical attacks Michelle has no regrets but fears the end of the tolerance in society which the profession has attained.

Over the years, as friends broke away from the grip of pimps, she noticed that with independence has come a new competitive spirit.

'For example, this afternoon, in the Bois, the police came and told me I would no longer be allowed to work on Wednesdays or weekends, when children are around, so I asked some women who work another section if I could park my van on their patch. When they saw that I'd had a couple of clients one of them said, "Are you sure you're not going to be here next week?" They let me stay because, at my age, I don't get many clients and because they've known me for 20 years, but it was touch and go.'

France Prostitution wants prostitutes to receive the same protection from social security as everyone else. Michelle pays tax, but has only the basic state pension (about 300 a month) to fall back on, so she continues working, despite a major cancer operation. 'Now I'm pimped by my bills,' she laughs.

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Created: January 21, 2003
Last modified: January 21, 2003
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