It's a political divide that could only materialize in France. On one side, 343 "bastards" telling their countrymen and government not to "touch my whore." On the other side, a feminist minister crusading to end prostitution. These are the battle lines over a proposed law that would penalize those who pay for sex, a measure aimed at cracking down on prostitution.
The legislation would fine those who purchase sex with a $2000 penalty and is part of an effort by Women's Rights Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem to tighten restrictions on the world's oldest profession. Citing human trafficking and rights abuses, the government wants to eventually eradicate the practice.
According to a parliamentary report, as many as 90 percent of France's 40,000 sex workers are migrants, and if Vallaud-Belkacem has her way that number may drastically decrease -- but with potentially disastrous consequences for French prostitutes.
STRASS, France's sex workers union (yes, there really is such a thing), is of course furious at the government's efforts to eliminate its members' livelihoods. "We are being treated like lunatics or like children who cannot speak up for themselves," STRASS union leader Manon, who goes by that one-word pseudonym, said in September interview with English-language news service The Local.
Sex workers claim that the law would not only make their work exponentially more difficult, it would also jeopardize their lives. "At least on the street, we can see the customer, we can negotiate with them," Manon told Al Jazeera. By forcing sex workers off the streets, Manon argues that the law could expose prostitutes to increased levels of violence, which may result in some turning to pimps for protection and reviving an exploitative part of the industry that is usually the first to be criminalized (and is currently illegal in France). Advocates for sex workers also fear that as the number of customers decrease, increased competition among prostitutes will trigger a proverbial race to the bottom. In that kind of market, the sex workers likely to get ahead are those willing not to use a condom -- nevermind the huge personal and public health risks. With a little imagination, you can envision what other unsavory, unhealthy practices a fine for sex purchases might inadvertently encourage.
The prostitutes have found many allies in their fight against the legislation, which currently only has the support of 20 percent of the country. The French entertainment industry has never shied away from l'amour physique -- after all, what is a French film without some nudity? -- and now they've come to the aid of sex workers. On Saturday, 70 French celebrities, including the actress Catherine Deneuve, who portrayed a prostitute in classic film "Belle de Jour," published a petition in which they argued the law would only force the industry underground.
"Without supporting or promoting prostitution, we reject the penalization of those who prostitute themselves and those who seek their services," the crème de la crème of the French entertainment industry argued in the petition, whose signatories also included the singers Charles Aznavour and Antoine and the director Claude Lelouch.
The French stars distanced themselves, however, from an earlier petition that protested the same law and which sparked outrage. In a controversial October statement, "343 bastards," who "regarding prostitution, (are) believers, practitioners or agnostics" wrote that "everyone has the right to freely sell their charms -- and even to like doing so," and that they "do not want lawmakers to adopt rules governing our desires and pleasures."
As for irony, well, it isn't in short supply: "All together, we declare: Don't touch my whore!" One of the petition's signatories was the lawyer of Dominique Strauss Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund who was accused of raping on a New York hotel maid. DSK, as he's better known in France, has also been rung up in France on charges of "aggravated pimping" as part of his alleged involvement in a luxury prostitution ring.
French society, as well as its political establishment, is known for its lenient attitude toward sexual misconduct. When DSK was preparing a run for president in 2006, his wife, Anne Sinclair, famously told a French newspaper that "it's important for a man in politics to be able to seduce." Asked about her husband's reputation as a ladies' man, she informed the paper she was "rather proud." That attitude was popularized in the 2006 book "Sexus Politicus," which argued that in France a man's sexual prowess is a reflection of his superior leadership abilities.
The "343 bastards" responsible for the controversial petition took their name from a 1971 petition to legalize abortion signed by 343 women who admitted to having had the procedure and who became known as the "343 bitches." It was a comparison that some French feminists did not take kindly. "The 343 bitches demanded in their day the right to dispose of their bodies freely," Vallaud-Belkacem argued. "The 343 bastards are demanding the right to dispose of the body of others. It deserves no comment."
The women's rights minister's comments echo a more general sentiment among many socialists toward prostitution. An ultra-tolerant world view does not necessarily translate into a permissive attitude towards the sale of sexual services. The governments of Norway and Sweden do not prohibit prostitution but penalize clients. Karl Marx himself came out against sex work as another form of the "general prostitution of the laborer" and predicted that the practice would vanish along with capitalism and the bourgeois family.
But as the "bastards" see it, prostitution strips them of a fundamental right. Bringing up one of the three pillars of French society -- liberté, egalité, fraternité -- they call their effort to preserve the right to buy sex a fight to uphold freedom. "We do not defend prostitution, we defend freedom."
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