THE WASHINGTON POST
After more than two years of slow-simmering social drama, the French Parliament passed a bill Wednesday that makes it illegal to pay for sex in France. Prostitution, however, remains legal: The point of the bill is to discourage the practice by penalizing clients instead of prostitutes.
The bill passed 64 to 12 in the National Assembly, France’s lower house, with no fewer than — count them — 501 deputies abstaining. It is the latest in a trend of anti-prostitution measures across Europe that seek to avoid stigmatizing sex workers even as officials try to eradicate their industry.
Under the new regulations, fines for those caught buying sexual services could reach 3,750 Euros ($4,265), and, in certain cases, apprehended clients will even be required to attend seminars on the struggles faced by women in the industry, many of whom are victims of international sex trafficking networks.
From the government, at least, reactions were positive. Manuel Valls, the prime minister, declared the vote a “major advance” for women’s rights. Laurence Rossignol, president Francois Hollande’s Minister of Families, Childhood and Women’s Rights, called it a long-overdue recognition of “the violence of the system of prostitution.”
To that end, the bill would also allocate funds for a number of France’s prostitutes — somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 in total — to receive training in other industries. At the same time, it would ease immigration restrictions on foreign sex workers, which, at least in theory, could help them find other work.
But not all were as enthused about this new legislation as Valls and Rossingnol. In fact, in the wake of Wednesday’s decision, there was a protest against the law outside the National Assembly — a protest by French prostitutes themselves.
Those gathered claimed that the new regulations would merely worsen their situation, pushing their industry further from regulatory safety and worsening their business in the process.
The protest highlighted something subtle but unavoidable: the quiet but permanent awkwardness — some would say hypocrisy — behind the French government’s morality crusade against prostitution.
If the current administration would like sex workers to disappear, the inconvenient truth for its members is that they will have to legislate and police the entirety of French cultural history, a terrain in which the courtesan is a celebrated, even vaunted, figure.
In real life, there was Madam du Barry, the mistress of Louis XV ultimately sent to the guillotine in 1793: today, any objet d’art whose provenance can be traced from her private collection immensely increases its value.
In literature, there is, among so many others, Marcel Proust’s Odette de Crécy and Émile Zola’s Nana, both inimitable characters who have beguiled generations of readers with coquetry but also humanity. In film, there was Catherine Deneuve in Luis Buñuel’s “Belle de Jour” (1967), a housewife turned call girl.
Perhaps most of all, in visual art, there are the countless madams of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and the delicate but dirty dancers of Edgar Degas. These figures are so ubiquitous that the Musée d’Orsay, one of the nation’s premier museums a few blocks from the National Assembly, just closed in January 2016 “the first major show on the subject of prostitution.”
The Musée d’Orsay is a national museum, and thus it would seem that the prostitute is an important piece of French national heritage. Will this new law apply retroactively to Madame du Barry?