Among the many representations of prostitution related to French culture, the best known to Americans are without a doubt the following:
1. Fantine, the victim-prostitute from Les Misérables
2. Lady Marmalade, the proudly fierce prostitute of the hit song.
Thanks to the lyrics of the latter, people who can’t otherwise string two words together in French can solicit sex like a pro. (Did you know that the chorus “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” comes from Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire? So says Wikipedia.)
So, why the post about prostitution? Because today, while Americans were shopping for their Black Friday deals, the French Assemblée nationale was duking it out over Maud Olivier ‘s (a distant relation of mine? no idea) proposed law to fight prostitution by going after the clients. The proposal would impose a 1,500 euro fine or a “stage de sensibilisation” (3,000 euros on strike two) on paying for sex. The law also offers help to prostitutes (in the form of at least 6 months stay in France and an underwhelming 336 euros a month) to get them out of the business. According to Le Monde, 80%-90% of prostitutes in France are foreigners (mostly from Bulgaria, Romania, Nigeria, Cameroon, China, and South America), so giving them a 6 month renewable stay in France would ease fears of swift deportation. The law is based on a Swedish law from 1999 that is said to have dramatically cut street prostitution—although with most of the sex trade working online, this isn’t as big a victory as one might hope.
You can watch the Assemblée nationale debate the law in a largely empty session (looks like about 3/4 of the members were doing some Black Friday shopping of their own, or just avoiding taking a side) or watch the following 10-minute intro by Maud Olivier, who, naturally includes a quote by Victor Hugo (you didn’t think it was going to be “Lady Marmalade” did you?) before launching into some sobering statistics
The average age of a person entering prostitution is 14 yrs. Life expectancy of a prostitute is 42 yrs. Organized crime controls most of it. Doesn’t exactly fit the “Lady Marmalade” viewpoint. But that doesn’t stop people from trying to argue in favor of prostitution.
Among the press coverage, Le Monde included decided to represent the 15% of prostitutes who are male by profiling three gigolos in its article “Juste an escort boy.” One of the men, named Bug Powder, talks about how he doesn’t feel exploited, and another chimes in that they are not selling their bodies, just renting them (On vend une prestation, après, notre corps nous appartient toujours.). Deep thoughts, dude.
The paper Libération outdoes Le Monde by interviewing the real victims of this proposed law: the clients. Poor 27-yr-old Matthieu, for example, tells us “”Moi, je ne veux pas “baiser” avec une prostituée (ou alors, très rarement) : je veux faire l’amour avec elle !” (“I don’t want to f*** a prostitute (or at least, rarely): I want to make love to her!”). Sounds like a real sweetheart. It’s a wonder he can’t find a real girlfriend. Plus, he adds, who are we to tell them what to do? “Forcerait-on une fumeuse à arrêter la cigarette?” (“Would we force a smoker to stop smoking?”).
And what about the disillusioned 27-yr-old Eric, who paid for a prostitute in Barcelona, but felt “blocked”? “Moi j’étais un peu bloqué, j’avais l’impression qu’elles n’en voulaient qu’à mon argent et que je ne les intéressais pas.” (“I was a little blocked, I had the impression that they only wanted me for my money and that they weren’t really interested in me.”). Imagine that. Just keep trying, Eric. I’m sure there’s a Pretty Woman story just waiting to happen.
And then there’s the wisdom of 55-yr-old Alex: “Sa seule victoire, bien médiocre et d’une inutilité absolue, sera la plus grande frustration de ceux qui dans les faits n’ont pas accès à la sexualité et pour qui le recours à la prostitution, qu’elle qu’en soit la forme, est la seule voie possible.” (essentially, “The [law’s] only victory, very mediocre and absolutely useless, will be to increase the frustration of those whose only access to sexuality is through prostitution.”). I believe he (or one of the other Johns) uses the term liberticide. Give me prostitutes or give me death.
Worse still, the manifesto of the “343 Salauds” led by writer Frédéric Beigbeder, which is meant to provoke feminists by playing on the manifesto of the “343 Salopes” written by Simone de Beauvoir in 1971. The Telegraph reports that celebs such as Catherine Deneuve and “Gerard Depardieu’s daughter” (so famous that your name doesn’t get mentioned) have fought for the rights of men to pay to use other people’s bodies.
In the media the French like to deride America’s puritanical values, but the fact is, the stats on prostitution have the U.S. looking even worse than the French.
Given the press coverage, I had low expectations for the Olivier’s proposal, but today’s vote was a victory—one that will leave the “343 salauds” very, very frustrated. The mesure penalizing the clients was passed. The entire law will go up for vote on December 4.
Update Dec 5: With 268 voting for, 138 against, and 79 abstentions, the law to fight prostitution passed yesterday.