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Sex Res Soc Policy (2012) 9:203211

DOI 10.1007/s13178-012-0082-5

An Ambiguous Compassion: Policing and Debating

Prostitution in Contemporary France
Lilian Mathieu

Published online: 14 April 2012

# Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Abstract Since 1960, prostitution is defined by the French

law as incompatible with human dignity. Prostitutes are
considered as victims of social maladjustment who should
be rescued by social workers and protected from pimps by
the police. Major changes in prostitution policies have nevertheless been introduced in 2003, without fundamentally
changing the law. Extended means have been given to the
police to repress street prostitutes, and, crucially, to arrest
and expel those prostitutes who are undocumented migrants.
Surprisingly, this coercive turn has not been perceived as
contradictory with the former compassionate approach, as
repression is deemed to guarantee the protection of prostitutes' human dignity. This paradox stands at the core of the
article that explores the public controversies on the issue
and especially the new project to criminalize the purchase of
sexual servicesamong social movements, politicians, government agencies, and intellectuals, as they are expressed in
the media and in parliamentary debates.
Keywords Prostitution . France . Migration . Soliciting .
Abolitionism . Public order

Despite being the country where the regulation of prostitution has been invented and theorized during the nineteenth
century (Parent-Duchtelet 2008), France adopted an abolitionist approach in 1960. This shift represented a key moment in the evolution of the French legal framework
concerning prostitution, i.e., from its framing as a moral
issue to a human dignity one. Whereas the moral framing
L. Mathieu (*)
Centre Max Weber, Ecole normale suprieure de Lyon,
15 parvis Descartes,
69342 Lyon cedex 07, France
e-mail: lilian.mathieu@ens-lyon.fr

aimed to protect public order from the immorality of

prostitution, the human dignity framing aims to rescue prostitutes who are considered as victims of social maladjustment and/or of pimps' pressure. As a consequence,
compassion is supposed to predominate in the way the
French state deals with prostitutes.
However, this compassionate approach seems to have
assumed an ambiguous tone for the last dozen years. Major
changes in prostitution policies have been introduced that
have been inspired by public order concerns and have legitimated more coercive policies towards prostitutes, and especially toward those of foreign origin. Surprisingly, this
turn has not been perceived as being in contrast to the
compassionate approach, in that public order policies are
supposed to guarantee the protection of human dignity. It is
this paradox that we will study in this article, first by
exploring the global framework concerning prostitution in
France since 1960, second by presenting how a new law on
soliciting and trafficking was prepared and discussed before
it was passed in 2003. Thirdly, we will analyze how this
policy has been evaluated since it has been put into force,
and the new debates that recently emerged as a result of a
parliamentary commission proposal to criminalize the purchase of sexual services. The analysis and discussion presented in this paper will mostly rely on the study of public
controversies about this issue among social movements,
politicians, government agencies, and intellectuals, as they
are expressed in the media (mainly daily and weekly local
and national newspapers), in official reports, and in parliamentary debates.1

The article also draws from the authors 20-year long study of French
prostitution (especially in Lyon) and of public debates, social movements, and public policies related to the issue (see Mathieu 2004, 2007,


The French Abolitionist Framework

France has been a regulationist country from the late eighteenth century until the end of World War II (Maugre
2009). Prostitution policies were during that time almost
always based on a compulsory registration of prostitutes
and health checks, with imprisonment for those who did
not comply. Licensing brothels was a way for the authorities
to keep prostitution in strictly delimitated and easy to control settings. The main aim was to exercise a moral and a
sanitary control: the authorities feared that prostitutes would
spread their, alleged, immorality and venereal diseases into
the dominant classes of society (Corbin 1978).
The transition from regulationism to abolitionism happened in two stages. The first was the 1946 law (known in
France as the loi Marthe Richard)2 that put a ban on brothels. This law was only a first step towards abolitionism, as
the ban was limited to metropolitan France (while brothels
were still legal in French colonies), and compulsory registration and health checks were maintained. France became
completely abolitionist in 1960, when the government ratified the 1949 UN Convention for the Suppression of the
traffic in persons and the exploitation of the prostitution of
others that is still the main legal reference regarding prostitution in contemporary France. According to it, prostitution
is considered as a private occupation, specific registration or
health checks are suppressed, and prostitution as such is
absent from the penal code.
The fact that the legal text that accompanied the ratification of the UN Convention defined prostitution as a social
evil (flau social), along with tuberculosis, alcoholism, and
homosexuality, emphasizes the ambivalence that stands at
the core of French prostitution policy: prostitution is not
prohibited but it is deprecated and it is assumed that it
should not exist. In this view, prostitutes are free to pursue
their activity, but this freedom is limited in several ways and
it is recognized that these limitations are meant to discourage them (Pinot 1975: 12; Bousquet and Geoffroy 2011:
100). First, prostitutes have to pay income taxes like any
other citizen, but they are excluded from the French welfare
system, the Scurit sociale. This system guarantees reimbursement of all medical costs; however, only to those who
pay a regular subscription that is administered at the professional level.3 As prostitution is not considered a real

Marthe Richard (herself a former prostitute) was a member of the

Paris municipal council that first voted a ban on brothels; this position
was, a few months later, extended by the Parliament to the whole
Each professional group administers its own fund within the
Scurit sociale. Wage earners have their subscription deducted
from their monthly pay and sent by their employer to the Scurit
sociale that is administered both by employers' organizations and
trade unions.

Sex Res Soc Policy (2012) 9:203211

profession, prostitutes cannot be affiliated as such to the

Scurit sociale, and they have to rely on welfare services
dedicated to poor people or to cheat the social insurance
system in order to receive benefits and support in case of
accident, sickness, or when they retire.
A more important limitation is the prohibition of procuring, i.e., inciting or forcing anyone to be a prostitute, organizing the prostitution of others, or taking advantage of it.
The penal code defines different categories of procuring.
Some are considered as simple offenses, such as living off a
prostitute's earnings, renting a place where a prostitute welcomes clients, or advertising for prostitutionthese can be
sentenced with fines or a few months or years in jail. Others
are considered as crimes and are much more severely sentenced. This is the case for procuring by an organized gang
(sentenced with a maximum of 20 years in prison and a 3
million fine) or with barbaric acts and torture (long-life
imprisonment and a 4.5 million fine). According to this
legislation, one can be a prostitute only if s/he is totally
independent and autonomous.
The global reform and modernization of the penal code
that took place in 1994 introduced some important changes.
Before 1994, anyone who lived with a prostitute was treated
as a procurer, including the prostitutes' children if they were
over 18. This was contested by prostitutes as it meant that
they had to live alone. Since the reform, a person who lives
with a prostitute has to prove that s/he earns a living on her/
his own otherwise s/he can be prosecuted. The major change
that was introduced by the 1994 reform regarding prostitution was the removal of the articles concerning procuring
from a section of the penal code dedicated to morals (bonnes
murs) to a chapter dedicated to violations of human dignity. By doing so, France participated in the international
mood to modernize criminal law in a humanitarian and more
liberal spirit (Outshoorn 2005: 144).
The last important limitation concerns solicitation. Until
1994, two different solicitation offenses could be punished
by the police, one called passive and the other active.
Passive solicitation entailed being a known prostitute in a
public place waiting for clients, whereas the active form
meant that the prostitute spoke directly to possible clients.
Passive solicitation had been contested because it gave too
much power to the police for arbitrary repression towards
prostitutes, and was banned in 1994, only to be reintroduced
in 2003, as explained in the following sections.
Two institutions had a monopoly over the treatment of
prostitution from 1960 until the 1990s: police and social
work. Different police units were in charge of the repression
of procurers or of public solicitation. The Office central
pour la repression de la traite des tres humains (OCRETH,
Central office for the suppression of trafficking in human
beings) was created in 1958; it produces expertise and
coordinates nationwide investigations about trafficking and

Sex Res Soc Policy (2012) 9:203211

international procuring. In big towns, and especially in

Paris, the Brigades de rpression du proxntisme (BRP,
brigades for the suppression of procuring) are specifically
dedicated to local investigations about various procuring
cases. Street level police, but also sometimes special units
such as the Units de soutien aux investigations territoriales
units in support for territorial investigations), are/were dedicated to the repression of solicitation. These units differ in
the way they consider prostitutes: whereas for the OCRETH
and the BRP they are first of all victims who must be
protected from pimps, street level police consider them
potentially guilty of public disorder who must be punished
(Mainsant 2008; Jaksic 2011).
With the ratification of the UN convention and the suppression of compulsory health checks, prostitution shifted
from being treated as a public health issue to a social
problem, legitimating the preeminence of social workers in
the monitoring of prostitutes. Social workers cannot force
prostitutes to end their activity, as it is considered a private
occupation, but they have to help them in case of distress
and offer them rehabilitation programs. Social workers share
a negative view of prostitution as they see it as mainly
caused by psychological trouble or by pimps' pressure, and
consider leaving the trade to be the best option (Mathieu
2007). Various organizations, most of them private but
subsidized with public funds (such as the principal one,
the Amicale du Nid), offer material and psychological support for prostitutes, and encourage them to leave prostitution
by offering them shelters and alternative unskilled jobs.
Various abolitionist organizations also conduct campaigns
to sensitize public opinion about the need to abolish the
prostitution system. They stand as experts on the issue and
exert some influence over politicians, be they from the right or
the left, and have developed close links with the feminist and
the anti-globalization movements. The main and older abolitionist organization is the Mouvement du Nid, that publishes
the quarterly Prostitution et socit and counts several local
chapters. It has been founded in 1946 and is issued from the
Catholic Church. The feminist Mouvement pour labolition de
la prostitution et de la pornographie (MAPP), that is the
French chapter of the Coalition Against the Trafficking in
Women, is also influential despite the fact that it has few
members. Abolitionist views are prevalent within the French
feminist movement,4 especially in its older and more institutionalized componentssuch as the Coordination nationale
pour les droits des femmes, CNDF)that consider prostitution to be violence against women, whereas the younger, more
informal and more queer-influenced groups tend to define it as

This alliance between French Christian and feminist organizations is
in some respect similar to the formation of the US anti-trafficking
coalition studied by Bernstein (2010).


sex work. The close links that the older feminists share with
anti-globalization organizations and parties of the left (such as
the Socialists, the Greens, the Communists, and extreme-left
groups) explain their success in pleading for an abolitionist
point of view within this part of the political field, as we will
see later.
The preeminence of social workers and of abolitionist
views ended in the early 1990s with the AIDS epidemic, and
with the creation of new organizations in charge of its
prevention (like the Bus des femmes and Pastt in Paris,
Cabiria in Lyon or Autres regards in Marseille). These
organizations are mainly based on self-help, and some were
created as an alliance of former prostitutes and health professionals. They consider prostitution a professional occupation that grants those who practice it specific and
irreplaceable skills for the prevention of STDs. AIDS prevention organizations support prostitutes' claims for a decriminalization and the official recognition of what they
define as sex work, and for an improvement of prostitutes'
working conditions.
Controversies are recurrent between social work and AIDS
prevention organizations (Mathieu 2004). Social workers and
abolitionists feared that with the AIDS epidemic, the new
framing of prostitution as a public health issue would lead to
a return to regulationist policies. This has not been the case,
but competition still exists between the two camps: whereas
social work and abolitionists define prostitutes as victims who
need to be rescued in order to leave the trade, AIDS prevention sees them as responsible individuals in control of their
own lives and who must be provided with assistance (in the
form of prevention advice, condoms, syringes, and social
support) in order to engage in an empowerment process. As
a consequence, AIDS prevention accuses social work and
abolitionism of being responsible for prostitutes' stigmatization while it is suspected in turn of encouraging a selfdestructive activity and of promoting procurers' interests.
Different or even opposite policies have been possible
and compatible within the abolitionist legal framework that
has been defined in 1960. Although the state position is that
prostitutes should be encouraged by social workers to leave
the trade, AIDS prevention organizations receive public
funding to help prostitutes work in better and safer conditions. The enforcement of the prohibition of solicitation has
always been fluctuant according to time and place. A relative tolerance prevailed in most towns as long as neighbors
did not complain, but harsh repression happened at times,
for example, when traditional prostitution districts (like the
courthouse district in downtown Lille) were subject to urban
renovation projects. As the 1990s were beginning, the main
procuring networks had been dismantled by the police and
most prostitutes were independent. The prostitution issue as
such was avoided by politicians, as it was considered to be
politically unworthy.


Criminalizing Prostitutes to Protect Them: the LSI

The situation changed at the end of the 1990s due to transformations in the organization and composition of prostitution. In a few years, new prostitutes appeared on the
sidewalks of French cities. Most of them came from Eastern
Europe (they were later followed by African and Chinese
women), with the reputation of being under the strict control
of mafia-type procuring networks (Attac 2008). The arrival
of these women, often young and visible in the urban
landscape, provoked a public outcry (especially in local
newspapers5). The stereotype of the naive young girl,
abused, seduced or kidnapped by a pimp, then sold to an
international procuring network whose members, having
trafficked her illegally through several countries, forced
her using violence to prostitute herself and to pay them with
the money she earns, found a new incarnation in the dozens
of young Albanians, Moldovans, Bulgarians, then Nigerians
and Chinese, women who occupy the sidewalks of French
cities. According to the OCRETH, while during the 1990s,
30 % of street prostitutes in Paris were migrants; in 2010,
they accounted for 90 % of street prostitutes (Bousquet and
Geoffroy 2011: 32). These new arrivals had two important
The first has been the remobilization of the abolitionist
movement, whose negative views on prostitution had been
overshadowed the previous years by the more liberal AIDS
prevention positions. The migrant prostitutes gave new
credibility to the ancient theme of the trafficking in women
that had been at the core of the international development of
the abolitionist movement at the beginning of the twentieth
century (Corbin 1978; de Vries 2005). Equating prostitution
to modern slavery offered abolitionists the opportunity to
counter stances that sex work could be an option for women,
and that prostitution should not be stigmatized or criminalized because it is an expression of one's free disposal of her
or his body. They developed a victim discourse (Jacobsen
and Stenvol 2010) that portrays migrant prostitutes as victims of trafficking and insists on their allegedly vulnerability: they are supposed to be young and naive, low educated,
and submitted to pimps' violence and to clients' contempt. In
this context, the coalition of the ancient catholic abolitionism and the women's movement converged to a new definition of prostitution as violence against women, while the
anti-globalization movement framed the trafficking issue as
a direct consequence of neo-liberal globalization that treats
human beings as commodities. The main French anti-

In Lyon, for example, weekly and monthly newspapers such as Lyon
capitale and Lyon mag soon started to regularly publish articles on the

Sex Res Soc Policy (2012) 9:203211

globalization organization, Attac, adopted an abolitionist

framing when it asserted that young girls who are objects
of trafficking are lured by sparkling job offers. They become
hostages of traffickers (Attac 2008: 49).
Media focus on trafficking helped those who equate
prostitution with sex slavery to be recognized as experts
on the matter, whereas politicians started to take an interest
in it. A first sign of this can be found in a 2000 report from
the Delegation for Women's Rights for the Senate, the first
parliamentary report ever dedicated to the issue. The Delegation consulted various experts, among them police officers and civil servants, but the majority was composed of
abolitionist representatives (especially from the Mouvement
du Nid and the MAPP). The Senators were convinced by
their arguments in that, after recalling the abolitionist inspiration of the French legal framework, their report affirmed
that it is primordial to prey on prostitution as such, because
trafficking has been consolidated for lack of doing it
(Dericke 2000: 93). The report also supported the ratification of the Palermo UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime and its protocol to prevent, suppress, and
punish trafficking in persons.6 This ratification was effective
as of October 2002, but without any real debate about it,
thus showing that there is political consensus on the issue.
The second consequence of the arrival of migrant prostitutes happened at the local level. The new prostitutes rapidly
started to operate in neighborhoods that had not been affected by prostitution for several years or created new prostitution zones. This resulted in local residents soon starting to
voice their discontent. Street prostitution often creates nuisances for the neighborhoods who are troubled by the noise
of conversations and confrontations between prostitutes, the
traffic of clients' cars, and sexual activities carried out in
residential buildings' lobbies and backyards. The visible
presence of prostitutes provoked a feeling of anxiety that
mixed hostility towards deviant migrants whose legal residence is doubtful, with compassion for unfortunate women.
As migrant prostitutes are supposed, according to the mainstream discourse, to be enslaved to mafia networks, they are
considered to be victims and the visible part of a threatening
criminal underworld (Mathieu 2011). Residents soon started
to mobilize and to make claims for a clean up of their
neighborhood (Danet and Guienne 2006). In Lyon, for example, the Mayor received letters from residents who

This protocol defines trafficking in persons as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the
threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud,
of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or
of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the
consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose
of exploitation. It aims to organize the cooperation between countries
in order to repress traffickers and to facilitate victims return to their

Sex Res Soc Policy (2012) 9:203211

complained that [on their way] back from school, our

children are approached. () Not to talk about the condoms
and other rubbish that stay on the ground in the whole area.
A business company also alerted that the presence of prostitutes in its parking lot was disastrous for its reputation
among its customers (Mathieu 2011: 117).
The politicization of prostitution is the ambivalent result of
these intertwined dynamics: growing compassion towards victims of trafficking and hostility against outsiders who create
nuisance and have close links with criminals. This contributed
to a framing of prostitution as an insecurity issue that would
need a reinforcement of police action, both against prostitutes
as they are undocumented migrants and a source of nuisance
and against traffickersas they organize a modern form of
slavery. This is the option Nicolas Sarkozy adopted as soon as
he was appointed as the new Minister of Interior in May 2002.
He announced that he would pass a new law that would help get
rid of populations that create an insecurity feeling, among them
aggressive beggars, squatters, gypsies, threatening or hostile
gatherings of young people, and prostitutes. His Loi sur la
scurit intrieure (LSI, Law on interior security) was presented
at the National assembly as early as July 2002. Its main innovation concerning prostitution was the reintroduction of passive
soliciting in the penal code. This was defined as to publicly
proceed to the soliciting of others, by any means, including
appearance or attitude, in order to incite them to sexual relations
in exchange for a remuneration or the promise of a remuneration, with a planned sentence of 6 months in jail and a fine up to
3,750 . The law project also planned that migrant prostitutes
found guilty of soliciting would be deported from the French
territory, even if they have a residence permit.
With this project, the minister of Interior was able to
respond to neighbors' claims by conferring police extended
means to suppress prostitutes' disturbing presence in the
urban space. He was also able to legitimize his policy by
referring to the fight against traffickers that had been pursued by abolitionists and feminists: he presented the suppression of solicitation as a way of making prostitution more
difficult and, as a consequence, of reducing pimps' earnings.
The stereotype of the migrant young girl trafficked and
forced into prostitution by violent procurers that the abolitionists had previously diffused was also a resource for
Sarkozy, as it suggests that all migrant prostitutes are in
France against their will and that their only dream is to go
back home.7 The deportation of those found guilty of solicitation could then be seen not as a coercive but rather as a
compassionate policy, as he explained to the Senate: I think
Sarkozy explained that These unfortunate girls are prisoners of Bulgarian, Albanian, Ghanian (sic) networks. They were not told they would
be prostitutes. They were told anything: that they would be models,
without warning them that in reality they would be beaten and put on
the sidewalks, discussion of the law project before the Senate, November
14th, 2002; http://www.senat.fr/cra/s20021114/s20021114H29.html.


it is judicious to escort to their country of origin girls who

don't speak our language and who have just arrived in our
territory, in order to free them from the claws of procurers. It
is a humanitarian duty.8 As many analysts have already
stressed (Aradau 2004, 2008; Berman 2003, 2010; Chapkis
2003; Darley 2006; OConnell Davidson 2006), the image
of the innocent victim of international procuring networks is
a useful tool for legitimating border control reinforcement
and anti-immigration policies, while it denies women's
agency in their migration decisions and prostitution
While the law was discussed in Parliament, the opposition denounced the contradiction of a criminalization of
prostitutes' activities in order to protect them from pimps.
Socialist Senator Louis Mermaz claimed that by creating a
new offense that only targets foreigners (), you [meaning
Sarkozy] force prostitutes to go underground; they will be
under the grips of procurers more than ever.9 An official
report from the Delegation for Womens Rights to the Senate also stressed that because most prostitutes are victims of
trafficking, the police should concentrate on the repression
of procurers, not of prostitutes (Rozier 2002). As can be
seen, the opposition to the law project did not challenge the
assumptionmade by almost all French political parties
that the prostitution market is in the hands of foreign mafia
networks and that prostitutes are their victims.
The final law project has been promulgated in March
2003, with a few changes from the initial project. The
sentence for solicitation is reduced from 6 to 2 months in
jail but the fine of 3,750 is maintained. The main change
from the initial project is the introduction of a new crime of
human trafficking, that is punishable with a sentence of
7 years in prison and a fine of 150,000 . The introduction
of this new crime is a transposition of the Palermo protocol,
that had been prepared by the former socialist government,
but that was disregarded after the 2002 election. The law
also provides that migrant prostitutes who denounce their
pimps would be granted a residence permit, but only a
temporary one, giving them just enough time for the pimps
to be prosecuted. In fact, it is assumed that migrant prostitutes are not supposed to stay in France, nor to continue
prostitution, after they have been freed from their network.
The LSI does not directly challenge the 1960 legal framework. Officially, prostitution is still regarded as a private
occupation that is not punishable as such. The preexisting
articles in the penal code concerning procuring have not
been removed nor changed, but a new one has been added
that creates the crime of trafficking. It is the new definition
of solicitation that has the more important practical consequences, because it gives the police new means to preclude



prostitutes' activities in that their presence in the urban space

is now punishable. The fact that the LSI also criminalizes
beggars, squatters, gipsy camps, or youth gatherings shows
that despite being presented as a humanitarian cause, prostitution has been treated first of all as an urban nuisance that
must be eradicated. France is not alone in this view, as many
analysts have noticed that, despite adopting divergent policies, other European states (such as England, the Netherlands, or Sweden) share a significant preoccupation for the
visible presence of prostitutes and aim at their displacement
to more discrete settings (Hubbard 2004a, b; Scoular and
Sanders 2010).
Nevertheless, the discussion and the passing of the
LSI were far from consensual. The new actuality gave
to the prostitution issue provoked during the 2002 summer and autumn a passionate public debate among intellectuals and social movements. This debate saw the
opposition of two camps that we already met: those
who define prostitution as slavery and those who consider it as sex work. It is striking that the debate was not
mostly centered on the lawboth camps were critical
about itbut on what prostitution is or should become.
Some intellectuals warned that the law would endanger
civil liberties, and especially the free disposal of one's
own body, whereas others called for the abolition of
prostitution as the cornerstone of patriarchy.10 As a
result of this cleavage, two demonstrations were organized in Paris while the LSI was being discussed in
Parliament. One was organized in November 2002 by
AIDS prevention organizations and prostitutes' groups
and it gathered a few masked prostitutes in front of the
Senate. The other took place a few days later in a
traditional prostitution district, and was organized by
the CNDF and abolitionist organizations, with an opening banner saying Human beings are not commodities.
Due to this divide, but also because the debate was
diverted from the public order stakes of the LSI, this
opposition was unable to resist the law's passing and its
enforcement. In particular, both camps missed, in their
controversies, that in the name of protecting them, the
LSI would first of all focus on migrant prostitutes and
deport them in order to clean up French cities (Ticktin


Despite the fact that most of these intellectuals identify as feminist

and reject the law, they were grounded in different academic traditions.
One camp was dominated by jurists and feminists who are attached to
the protection of civil liberties in the morals field (some of them had
previously participated in a recent debate on the rights of gay and
lesbians). The opposite camp was dominated by older feminists who
had previously been active on abortion and violence against women;
contrary to the first camp, they do not consider sexuality as a field for
personal liberties, rather as a dangerous zone where women are exposed to violence.

Sex Res Soc Policy (2012) 9:203211

Looking for New Options after the LSI Failure

As abolitionist and pro-sex work movements fought each
other about prostitution per se, other organizations, not
focusing on prostitution but rather on human rights, started
to evaluate the practical consequences of the implementation of the LSI. Some of themthe Ligue des droits de
lhomme (League for human rights), the Syndicat de la
magistrature (Union of magistrates) and the Syndicat des
avocats de France (Union of French lawyers)worried
about the law-and-order turn that the government was tacking and formed, in 2002, a commission dedicated to the
evaluation of the relations between citizens, police, and
justice. The commission conducted, in 2005, a first independent evaluation of the LSI. It listened to several Parisian
prostitutes who testified that they frequently receive abusive
fines for irregular parking or for solicitation. They above all
reported that they are subjected to harsh repression, being
abusively and repeatedly kept in custody several hours
without any real motive, that they frequently suffer from
police intimidation and humiliation, and that they are sometimes robbed by policemen. Their clients are also intimidated by the police, and as a consequence, most prostitutes
reported that they suffer from a decrease in their earnings,
while they have to pay higher fines repeatedly. The commission concludes in its report that there is a drift in the way
the LSI is implemented by the police: it is not solicitation
that is targeted but prostitution itself, and the legality of
many police acts is doubtful (Citoyens-justice-police 2005).
Five years later, this report was followed by a more
official one, from the Conseil national du sida (CNS, National council on AIDS). In it, the CNS stresses that the LSI
has destabilized prostitutes without protecting them from
procurers. In many towns (such as Lyon, Rennes, and Toulon), prostitutes have been forced to move to more discrete,
more isolated, and then more dangerous settings, while
forcing them to be clandestine and reinforcing their stigmatization. Prostitutes' exposition to violence remains high and
they face increasing difficulties in accessing basic welfare.
This is especially the case for undocumented migrants,
especially since the government has restricted their access
to medical aid. The CNS emphasizes that the prostitution
policy has become first of all an immigration policy that
makes deporting migrant prostitutes a priority. It appears
that the suppression of solicitation mainly, if not exclusively,
targets migrant prostitutes and that many of them are prosecuted for being undocumented (CNS 2010: 23). The CNS
also stresses that France does not respect the Palermo protocol in its specifying that the rights granted to victims of
trafficking should not be conditional on cooperation
with the police, as the LSI requires them to denounce
their pimps in order to obtain a temporary residence
permit (CNS 2010: 25).

Sex Res Soc Policy (2012) 9:203211

Another official independent institution, the Commission

nationale consultative des droits de lhomme (CNCDH,
National consultative commission on human rights), also
stresses in a report published in 2010 that very often victims
of trafficking cannot have access to justice, as they fear of
being arrested and deported if they try to lodge a complaint
when they are undocumented migrants. Those who dare to
denounce their pimps are suspected of doing so only to
obtain a residence permit. As a consequence, their denunciations are often questioned by the police, social workers,
and courts, and the fact that they engage in a stigmatized
activity such as prostitution, aggravates this suspicion (Jaksic
2011). The CNCDH pleads for a cancellation of all prosecution for solicitation or illegal migration when victims of trafficking lodge a complaint, and insists that prefects should not
as some of them docondition the delivery of a residence
permit to leaving the sex market, as prostitution is a legal
activity (CNCDH 2010: 15).
The CNCDH points to what is the major contradiction of
the LSI: although it claims to compassionately protect victims of trafficking, it first and foremost criminalizes them as
guilty of solicitation or illegal border crossing. As Jaksic
shows (2008; 2011), the ideal victim of traffickers that the
abolitionists and the media have depicted, vanishes only to
reappear under the traits of a guilty victim, who needs to
be sentenced for the offenses s/he has committed by coming
to France and by engaging in prostitution. The innocent
victim of traffickers, who deserves pity and compassion, is
transformed into the disturbing outsider that must be
expelled first from the urban space, then from the national
territory. Denouncing their pimps should have granted
protection for trafficking victims, but this protection turns
out, in reality, to be rather empty, many of them being
deported before they can testify about their reasons for
illegal residence or solicitation. It has also been noticed that
until 2010, no trafficking case has ever been sentenced,
although the sex slavery trade was depicted as overwhelming.
In fact, international trafficking cases indeed existed but they
have been sentenced by courts as already existing crimes of
procuring by organized groups.
The different official reports we have quoted so far have
received little media attention, and their criticisms have been
unable to challenge the current French prostitution policy.
This is not the case of a report that was published in spring
2011 by a National Assembly commission specifically dedicated to prostitution (Bousquet and Geoffroy 2011), and
that has provoked a new public debate on the issue. This
400-pages long report draws a full portrayal of the situation
of prostitution in France and presents critical appraisal of its
policy. It endorses the abolitionist view of prostitution as a
patriarchal and violent institution that is detrimental to prostitutes' physical and psychological health, security, and wellbeing. Even though the commission has consulted


prostitutes' spokepersons, such as the recently founded Syndicat des travailleurs du sexe (STRASS, Sex work union),
the idea that prostitution could be considered as sex work is
found irrelevant. The report also stresses that the majority of
prostitutes in France are migrants, and that their presence on
the French territory is directly connected to the development
of trafficking networks that exploit them.
If the suppression of procuring is found satisfying, the
evaluation of the suppression of solicitation appears more
disappointing, mostly due to the reluctance of many courts
to sentence what they consider a minor offense and to police
discouragement in the prosecution of prostitutes. The report
also recognizes that repressing solicitation has mainly displaced prostitution to more isolated areas, while aggravating
prostitutes' working conditions. The main criticisms target
the social level of the French prostitution policy that is
found disastrous and means dedicated to the prevention
of prostitution and to the rehabilitation of prostitutes are
found dramatically insufficient.
The fact that half of its members were right-wing MPs
prevented the commission from being too critical toward the
repressive policy that has been implemented by the government since 2003. This also forced the commission to search
for new options in order to renew a prostitution policy that
was nevertheless found unsatisfying. The Swedish model11 then appeared as a major source of inspiration for the
commission, as its main recommendation is the criminalization of prostitutes' clients. Creating a new offense of
purchasing sexual services has been for a long time a claim
made by French abolitionists and feminists. Their lobbying
resulted in the passing of a law, in 2002 (when the Socialist
government was still in charge), that makes paying a prostitute over 15 and under 18 years of age an offense sentenced with 3 years in prison and a 45,000 fine; in 2003,
paying very vulnerable prostitutes (meaning: pregnant, diseased, disabled, or mentally disabled) has also been added
as an offence with the same sentences. Criminalizing all
clients was promoted by Socialist MPs during the parliamentary debate on the LSI, in order to distance themselves
from the measures promoted by Sarkozy, but without
The project of a criminalization of all clients reappeared
in the parliamentary report as a panacea because it overcomes the LSI paradox that defines prostitutes as victims but
treats them as guilty. Instead, prostitutes are unequivocally
defined as victims, whereas clients are considered as guilty
of perpetrating violence against women. The idea that by
suppressing the purchase side of commercial sex, the supply
would disappear overshadows that, like criminalizing solicitation, criminalizing clients would once again drive

Since 1999, a Swedish law defines prostitution as violence against

women and criminalizes the purchase of sexual services.


prostitutes underground (as shown by the Swedish experience itself, see Hubbard et al. 2008: 147), to the renewed
satisfaction of neighbors of prostitution zones. Compassion
toward prostitutes and protection of public order can then be
perfectly articulated, while reinforcing the idea that migrant
women are forced into prostitution by violent procurers and
that the only valid option for them is to leave the trade and
go back home.
Despite it only formulates a recommendation and not a
real law project, the report has received wide media attentionwith numerous reports on TV news and articles in
daily newspapersand it provoked a new debate on prostitution in the public sphere. A controversy soon developed,
opposing the same camps we already met. Abolitionists and
feminists applauded the commission's recommendation in
that, according to a Mouvement du Nid representative, it
helps to put the prostituting client, who feeds an enormous
market of women, in front of his responsibilities (Legardinier
2011). On the other hand, Act-Up, the STRASS, and the
collective Droit et prostitution (Law and prostitution) claimed
that criminalizing consented sexual acts just because they are
paid severely affects sexual freedom and denies women's
sexual agency (Amaouche et al. 2011).
It is not sure, therefore, that the commission's recommendation will ever result in a new law. It received clear support
from the government, but with the notable exception of the
minister of Interior, C. Guant, who stressed that because
supplying sexual services is still a legal activity, it would be
difficult to make its purchase illegal. A law project on the
criminalization of prostitutes' clients has nevertheless been
submitted at the National Assembly in November 2011 but
its vote has been scheduled for after the 2012 presidential

The French minister of Solidarity and Social Cohesion R.
Bachelot asserted that Prostitution is never voluntary. Nearly 85 % of prostitutes are submitted to international procuring networks (Echkenazi 2011). This assimilation between
prostitution and trafficking helps to idealize the figure of the
prostitute as a victim of criminal networks. This figure is
both an extension and a distortion of the abolitionist image
of the prostitute that has been set in the 1949 UN Convention and endorsed in 1960 by the French state. It is an
extension in the sense that the prostitute is again and again
depicted as a victim who should be rescued in order to leave
the trade. But it is also a distortion, because she is not the
victim of the same evils. When France adopted abolitionism
in 1960, the prostitute was first of all a victim of social
maladjustment and psychological distress, who needed to be
rescued by social workers. Nowadays, she is seen as the

Sex Res Soc Policy (2012) 9:203211

victim of the violence of traffickers and of clients. As a

consequence, it is not social workers support that is the
priority, but police intervention, in accordance with zerotolerance ideology that tends to change social and economic
problems into insecurity issues that first of all appeal for
coercive responses (Hubbard 2004b; Scoular and ONeill
2007; Scoular and Sanders 2010).
We therefore have an explanation of the paradox that
stands at the core of the new French prostitution policies.
Defining prostitutes as victims is what unites feminists,
abolitionists, and the government, and it is what makes their
positions compatible despite their holding different views on
prostitution. It legitimates policies that, despite targeting
different populations (prostitutes or clients), produce the
same results: making the presence of prostitutes in urban
places illegitimate and allowing the expulsion of undocumented migrants. The alleged victim status plays an important role in making this paradox sustainable: victims are
supposed to be too weak and vulnerable to have a voice of
their own, and to be needing protection from others who
know better what is good for them. Here, victimization is
based on the denial of prostitutes' agency in their migration
decisions and prostitution activities and prevents them from
expressing their own point of view in the prostitution

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