For the past three years sex workers in France and their union, STRASS, have been fighting against the attempt to introduce laws criminalising their clients. The issue was first discussed by the French National Assembly in December 2011 when a non-binding resolution was adopted by the Assembly supporting the introduction of the ‘Swedish model’ in France. This was later followed by the introduction of a formal Bill by the ruling French Socialist Party. The campaign to pass the Bill was led by the Minister for Women’s Rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who declared: “My objective is to see prostitution disappear.”
The Bill proposed to introduce fines for anyone caught paying for or seeking out commercial sexual services. On a first offence the fine could be as much as €1,500 and on a second offence this would rise to €3,000. Clients caught under the proposed law would also be expected to attend “re-education classes”. The Bill was debate in the National Assembly and a vote was taken on 4th December 2013. The Bill passed at this stage by 268 votes to 138, with 79 abstaining.
The matter was then taken up by the French Senate. Before going to a full vote at the Senate the Bill is first considered by a Committee, which has the power to make amendments. In a victory for sex worker rights the Senate Committee has removed the clause from the proposed Bill containing the provisions to criminalise clients. The decision to remove this clause from the Bill was passed by 16 votes to 12.
The many months and years of campaigning and activism from STRASS has paid off as the Senators clearly understood the very real dangers that the ‘Swedish model’ poses to sex workers. Senator Esther Benbassa described criminalising clients as a “moralistic law” and said that "the arguments about the consequences of the criminalisation of clients on the safety and health of prostitutes have prevailed”.
In their press release STRASS said: “the Senate Select Committee has taken the time to organise real hearings, to listen to all points of view, including those of national and international health and human rights organisations and considered the evidence of the negative impact of the criminalisation of clients of sex workers. Above all, the Senate Select Committee has taken into account the voices of those first concerned, sex workers themselves.”
The move from the Senate Committee has been welcomed and celebrated by sex workers and sex worker activists all across Europe. In a press release, the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe said:
“This is a great victory for sex workers who have fought tirelessly against this law proposal not only in France but in every country where this dangerous approach has threatened our livelihood and our safety.
ICRSE hope that this victory in France will inspire sex workers to keep fighting for their rights and for organisations and policy-makers supporting the failed Swedish Model to really consider the growing amount of evidence against it, to follow the steps of the French Senate Select Committee and to abandon the criminalisation of clients in favour of the only human rights based approach to sex work: full decriminalisation."
Taken together with the recent decision from the French Human Rights Commission, which also rejected the criminalisation of clients, it is hoped that the policy will now never be introduced in France. NSWP urges any other government that may be considering introducing the ‘Swedish model’ to follow the example set in France, consider the very real harm it causes to sex workers and think twice.