French lawmakers rejected a proposed law Tuesday that would have fined people caught paying for sex, voting instead to crack down on the country's prostitutes.
The French Senate, which currently holds a conservative majority, voted 165 to 44 in favor of regulating the world's oldest profession by fining prostitutes caught soliciting customers up to 3,750 euros ($4,050), and sentencing them to a maximum of two months in jail.
A previous version of the legislation that was introduced in 2013 and approved by the National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament, sought to punish johns instead of prostitutes by imposing a 1,500 euro ($1,630) fine on anybody caught paying for sex. The senators, however, decided to go after sex workers instead and let their clients off the hook completely.
Sex worker advocacy groups fear the senate's move will further stigmatize prostitutes and make them vulnerable to abuse. STRASS, a trade union for sex workers, had previously called on the government to decriminalize all aspects of prostitution.
"Prostitutes will be forced to hide and work in conditions that are increasingly precarious," STRASS spokeswoman Morgan Merteuil told VICE News. "Punishing clients does not work in favor of prostitutes. These laws all have the same purpose, which is to rid the streets of whores."
Even anti-prostitution groups are criticizing the new legislation.
"The client and the pimp should bear the brunt of the law, so that prostitutes can report abuses to the authorities without being afraid," Grégoire Théry, a spokesman for Mouvement du Nid, an organization that supports social services for sex workers while seeking to abolish prostitution, told VICE News.
The purpose the National Assembly's failed 2013 proposal was to revoke previous legislation introduced in 2003 by Nicholas Sarkozy, then the interior minister. The so-called "Sarkozy Law" made soliciting in public illegal and controversially introduced "dress and attitude" as grounds for the arrest of prostitutes. Prostitution is still technically legal in France, but the act of soliciting sex in public is considered a crime.
Roughly 90 percent of France's estimated 30,000 sex workers are women. According to the French interior ministry, 80 percent of the prostitutes working in France come from abroad, mostly from Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, China, and Brazil.
Other European countries have had success with progressive approaches to the sex trade. In 1999, Sweden made it illegal to buy sexual services but not to sell them, and statistics show that the law has cut street prostitution in the country by half.
"In countries where clients are punished, police monitoring shows that pimping networks are starting to fold," Théry said. "They say the market is dead."
Dr. Axel Kahn, the co-author of a recent article on human trafficking in the French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche and a member of the French National Consultative Ethics Committee, told VICE News the senate's proposed law is "chauvinist and reactionary."
Kahn said punishing clients has long-term "educational" benefits, and that paying for sex "should not be as easy as paying for a baguette."
According to Merteuil, the crackdown on prostitutes hides a different political agenda. "This hunting down of prostitutes is in fact [the government] hunting down undocumented workers," she said. "The UMP [conservative party], like the PS [socialist party], are enforcing a repressive policy toward undocumented [migrants]."
Despite the divisions over who should bear the brunt of the law, French lawmakers are overwhelmingly in agreement over the need to offer social services to sex workers. French lawmakers have considered several measures that would provide support for prostitutes who seek to find a new line of work, including a 20 million euro government fund dedicated to social programs and assistance. Another provision would integrate prostitution prevention into the sex education curriculum in public schools.
The senate's bill will now be submitted to the National Assembly for a second reading. If the two houses of parliament can't agree on the bill, the National Assembly will get final say, potentially shifting the penalties once more from the sex workers and back onto their clients.
Follow Matthieu Jublin on Twitter: @MatthieuJublin