A woman waits for clients in the Bois de Boulogne, in Paris. Photograph: Getty Images
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Should prostitution be legalised in France?

Back from Paris where she has been interviewing prostitutes, politicians, police, and feminists who argue both for and against legalising prostitution, Valeria Costa-Kostritsky asks whether this is the answer.

French Minister of Women's Rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, sees prostitution as an intrinsically violent act. “My objective, like that of the Socialist Party, is to see prostitution disappear,” she said in a June interview with French weekly Journal du Dimanche.

“Obviously, we don't want to make prostitution disappear in one day,” Maxime Ruszniewski-Bryner, press adviser to Vallaud-Belkacem, told me when I spoke to him by phone in December, “but to make it recede as much as possible and to help prostitutes who should be considered victims in the first place.”

Why victims? I ask. “For the minister,” says Ruszniewski, “prostitution is to be considered mainly as a violent act, and that matters more than the unconditional right to exercise this profession. More than 8 out of 10 women aren't practising this  profession freely. More than 8 out of 10 women are controlled by prostitution networks. They are, in their overwhelming majority, foreign, often undocumented, threatened by organised crime networks – which explains why, in the vast majority of cases, prostitution is a violent act against women.”

As for the “women who say they exercise this profession freely”, Ruszniewski adds, “there's a real question to be asked about what charging for a sex act means." On this subject, the position of the minister is clear: for her, allowing a sex act to take place for money increases inequality between men and women because the relationship is characterised by the domination of men over women.”

For the sceptical, Ruszniewski adds: “People often tell us that we are naive, that prostitution will never disappear, but in Sweden, where clients of prostitution have been criminalised since 1999, prostitution has decreased by half.”

Is there such a thing as independent prostitution?

Not really, according to police superintendent Jean-Philippe Lenormand, second-in-command of Brigade de Répression du Proxénétisme (the Parisian anti-procuring squad), based in Ile de la Cité. His squad covers street prostitution as well as the 'discreet prostitution' that takes place in apartments and hotels, via the Internet. His job is to build lengthy cases against pimps; the prostitutes themselves are considered victims. He tells me that most street prostitutes working in Paris are migrants from Africa (mainly Sub-Saharan countries), China, the Balkans and South America.

“There are very few independent prostitutes,” says Lenormand. For him there is a wide circle of responsibility around the 'victimisation' of prostitutes. “One shouldn't stick to the well-known cliché of the pimp, who controls a ring of prostitution through second fiddles,” he says. “ Anyone receiving rent from a prostitute while being aware of her activity can also be accused of pimping. The client who falls in love with a prostitute and drives her from her home to her place of work can be considered guilty of help and assistance given to a prostitute and he becomes a pimp too.”

This is how French law on pimping works. Here, even the child of a prostitute can be accused of pimping if prostitution funds his or her higher education. According to this very extensive definition, the only way of being a truly independent prostitute is to have no ties – be it with a landlord, friends, lovers, family.

When I meet France, an ex prostitute who created Les Amis du Bus des Femmes (Women's Friends Bus)  NGO in 1990 to fight the AIDS epidemic within the community of prostitutes, she describes prostitution in significantly different terms: “On one side, you have the traditionnelles ( old school prostitutes) who are disappearing, on the other, you have forced prostitution, which we strongly condemn and don't even consider to be prostitution. But in the middle, you have a vast grey zone with prostitution that is neither traditional nor forced – which encompasses occasional prostitution, student prostitution, prostitution by women who face extreme poverty and need to survive...”

Forced prostitution and migrants' prostitution – a confusion

In fact, the French Union of sex workers, the STRASS (created in 2009) claims that anti-prostitution campaigners deliberately cultivate confusion between prostitution by illegal migrants and forced prostitution. Superintendent Lenormand described extremely violent forms of trafficking – generally associated with gangs from the Balkans – where women are forced to work as prostitutes. But what about the Nigerian women he spoke about – the ones who migrate illegally to France and work as prostitutes to pay a smuggling debt? “Do they know that they will be working as prostitutes before coming to France?” I asked. “Yes, they generally do,” said Lenormand.

Naël Marandin, who volunteers for the Lotus Bus – an NGO providing assistance to Chinese prostitutes in Belleville – tells me that most Chinese women who work as prostitutes in this Parisian neighbourhood come from the North Chinese region of Dongbei and suffer discrimination from Chinese migrants who have been established in France for longer, who generally come from the Wenzhou region. Upon arrival, these women find out that, in the closed French labour market, most jobs available to them are live-in positions with families from Wenzhou where they are expected to work long and hard for very little money. Prostitution, despite its risks and the stigma that is attached to it, offers them a better income and greater independence. In fact, for many women migrants facing the closed French job market, prostitution is one of the few available options. Although it results from economic necessity, migrant prostitution does not necessarily equate with forced prostitution.

Prostitution as violence – meeting with a Catholic French anti-prostitution NGO

One of the leading voice speaking against prostitution in France emanates from Le Mouvement du Nid (The Nest Movement), an organisation created in the 1930s by a Catholic priest named André-Marie Talvas to help women leave prostitution. 28 year-old Anne-Cécile Mailfert leads its Parisian branch while also being on the board of Osez le Féminisme (“Dare Feminism”), a feminist organisation that has gone from strength to strength since its creation in 2009 and has close ties with the new Ministry of Women's Rights, with one of its founders, Caroline De Haas, working as an adviser to Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.

As part of her involvement in Le Nid, Mailfert visits locations where prostitutes work in Paris, but only on foot and empty-handed. “We are not there to give them cake, coffee or anything like that,” she says. (The Mouvement du Nid has always refused to distribute condoms, not wanting to seem to encourage prostitution.) “We are there to create a non-mercantile link, as humans, as citizens, to tell prostitutes that some people in France are not indifferent to what they are experiencing.” Women can also come to Le Nid's headquarters and receive help, if they announce their intention to stop working as prostitutes. On the Internet, one can find some edifying stories of redemption showing Le Nid's action, like this video named 'A flower in manure'.

“Prostitution,” says Mailfert, “is a sexual act desired only by one of the two partners involved. Being penetrated by a man in your mouth, in your anus or in your vagina when you don't desire him means not wanting his smell, his skin, his penis. It's very serious violence which has long-term traumatic consequences. For prostitutes, it implies a dissociation, a decorporalisation, that is to say an anaesthesia of the zones that are penetrated and also a psychological anaesthesia – so that they can stand what they are experiencing.” The term 'decorporalisation', Mailfert tells me, was coined by Dr. Judith Trinquart, in her PhD dissertation, entitled Decorporalisation in prostitutional practise. Trinquart, I later find out, now works as a forensic scientist.

Mylène and Sandra (nom de guerre), both in their late forties, work as prostitutes on rue Saint-Denis. This street, which used to be the most notorious street for prostitution in Paris, is dying slowly, as the police chase newcomers working there without owning a flat. Soon, the whole area will be gentrified. When I tell the two women about Trinquart's concept of decorporalisation, they're both greatly amused. “Look at me,” says Mylène, touching her arms, “I'm very much there. I can feel my body.” She's less amused by Le Nid's existence: “No, really, can somebody tell me what their legitimacy is? Why do they speak for us? I hate them, they're so insidious– they'll only help you if you say and do what they want.”

Protecting prostitutes against violence

While some French feminists are busy condemning prostitution as a violent act, they show less interest in fighting alongside prostitutes to defend them and improve their life. Yet, for historian Esther Benbassa, a senator and member of the EELV party (Europe Ecology – The Greens), supporting prostitutes is a matter of urgency. Benbassa has campaigned to abolish the law on 'passive soliciting', established in 2003 when Sarkozy was Interior Minister, which makes it illegal for prostitutes to solicit clients in the street, even 'passively' (that is to say, waiting to be approached). The law - which was part of an Interior Security Law, which, incidentally, also targeted travellers - contributed to clearing French town centres at night. Prostitutes, fearing arrest, moved further out, to more isolated locations, like woods, forests and roads. “The law has caused an increase in sexually transmitted diseases,” says Benbassa, “and made prostitutes suffer more violence and more precarity. It's also made it harder for NGOs to reach them. It really needs to go.”

During the presidential campaign, Hollande announced his intention of suppressing the law on passive soliciting, but when Benbassa tried to put a repeal on the Senate's agenda, she was required by the president's assistant and by Vallaud-Belkacem to withdraw it. I ask her why. “Don't be naïve,” she says. “They want to repeal the law on soliciting and pass the law criminalising clients at the same time, to make a good move and a hurtful one at once, as a way to sweeten the pill.” Benbassa is opposed to the law criminalising clients. “It won't work,” she says, before adding: “I went to Sweden with Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. There, we were given figures by officials showing that the measure works but these results are, in fact, extremely contested.” For Benbassa, “it is not the place of a Socialist government to moralise society. We know how hurtful dreams of a perfect society can be.”

Giving prostitutes legal status

25 year-old Morgane Merteuil is an escort and the first secretary of the STRASS, the French union of sex workers. (Unlike the British-based International Union of sex workers, which is part of the GMB, the STRASS hasn't been recognised by a bigger union.) Merteuil, whose nom de guerre recalls the name of a character in Choderlos de Laclos' Dangerous Liaisons, has quickly become one of the leading voices speaking for prostitutes in France. As such, her legitimacy is constantly called into question by anti-prostitution advocates – who regularly accuse her of not being representative of prostitutes (because she is young, University-educated, and doesn't work on the street) and of defending the interests of pimps, clients, and any men who exploit women through sex work.

“What do we want?” she asks, as I meet her in a café in Place de la Nation. “We call for a complete decriminalisation of sex work, because today, even though in theory, it's legal to work as a prostitute in France, there's a whole set of measures that prevent you from doing so. You can be a prostitute but you can't say so, otherwise it's soliciting. You can't be in contact with anyone because they could be accused of pimping. You can't work anywhere and you can't do anything with the money you earn.”

For Merteuil, prostitution needs to be viewed in a wider social and political context. “Why are there lots of migrant women who work as prostitutes?” she asks. “Because without residence and work permits, they are not allowed to work in France. Moaning about migrant women forced to work as prostitutes is of little use – we need to remember that the French state doesn't allow them to do anything. And why do so many transgender people work as prostitutes?” she asks. “Because it is extremely difficult to acquire a new birth certificate in France.” And indeed, having ID that doesn't match your new gender makes the job interview process very tough, and getting a job next to impossible.

“A discussion about violence at work could be interesting”, adds Merteuil, “if it wasn't exclusively about violence linked to prostitution, in order to legitimise banning it.” She believes that a law criminalising clients will only make prostitutes' lives worse, exposing them to more dangers, making it more difficult for them to negotiate with clients. “Do [anti-prostitution] feminists really believe that their proposals will be heard by this government – which is only socialist by name? Let's remember that we have Manuel Valls as an Interior Minister. The planned law on prostitution will only bring more repression, the social side to it will soon be forgotten, like it has been in the past. And I will never forgive anti-prostitution feminists for being complicit with that, just because they badly want a law criminalising clients of prostitution.”

Prostitutes, to be protected, need to be given legal status, argues Merteuil. Like Mylène and Sandra, she is not for the Dutch-style regulation that a small number of French right-wing politicians seem to favour (“The Dutch model, which allows brothels but bans any other kind of prostitution, just sounds like capitalistic exploitation to me,” she says). But she's interested by the Kiwi model: in New Zealand, prostitution is completely decriminalised and brothels are allowed, as well as small cooperatives of prostitutes who share a flat where they can receive clients. 

While researching for this piece, sipping tea with rue Saint-Denis traditionnelles, talking with members of various NGOs or hearing the great stories that cops tell when they speak off the record, I have learnt more about the wide range of difficulties faced by prostitutes working in France. Violence, arrest, deportation, police brutality, inadequate health care and overwhelming social stigma are all material conditions of this form of work. I have come to realise that giving prostitutes legal status seems to be the right thing to do if we really want to improve their life. Interestingly - and this should be noted by anti-prostitution feminists – legally recognising prostitutes is probably the best way to ensure that those who want to are able to leave prostitution. Legalisation would also bring benefits to those who currently have no other option but prostitution, allowing them perhaps to access training, apply for French nationality after years of working the Paris streets, or put their work experience on their CVs without shame or blame.

As for feminism, shouldn't it do more to include prostitutes in the discussion about prostitution? Some of them have important things to say, like Mylène, who tells me: “Mrs Vallaud-Belkacem doesn't realise that opposing women who want to earn a living being prostitutes goes against her fight for women's rights.” Could she be right?

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a French journalist based in London. This post first appeared on openDemocracy 50.50 here.

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a French freelance journalist. She reports on social issues and contributes to the LRB, the Guardian, Index on Censorship and French Slate, with a particular interest in France and Russia. She is on Twitter as @valeria_wants.

 

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The "people" have spoken on Brexit - listening to them is another matter

The Athenians had another word for them. 

Commentators are right to point to the fury and frustration of the "left behind", who are, everywhere it seems, rebelling against establishments they believe have betrayed them. 

But they may understate the threat we now face. Many of those who voted for Brexit or Donald Trump were not just rejecting economic injustice or "broken politics" but also perhaps the very principles of our system of government. For them, democracy itself may have lost its appeal.

If that is the case, we can’t blame the elites alone. We, "the people", are complicit. In associating democracy almost exclusively with economic advancement, we have begun to forget that it is also, and principally, about shared values, rights and responsibilities. In the UK and the US, voters in their millions have traded one against the other. The citizens of the Netherlands and France may soon do the same.

It's too early to panic. Perhaps we’ll come to see that Brexit was not the calamity some of us predict; perhaps President Trump will turn out to be better than we fear he may be.  

But we would be foolish to ignore the precedents. 

The great democracy of ancient Greece lasted two hundred years. But then, subverted by demagogues and oligarchs, and overwhelmed at last by autocrats, it disappeared from the world for 2,000 years. For all that time, the citizens of today’s democracies were the subjects of tyrants, elites and ideologues but never of themselves.

Modern history provides no greater reassurance. Even when democracy has apparently been secured, it has consumed itself at the ballot box with awful consequences. We are not in that place. But in the UK and the US we have taken a step in its direction.

Rights and responsibilities

The dilemmas we face are as old as democracy itself.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles set out for his fellow citizens the precepts of their remarkable democracy. He spoke of the equality of their rights before the law. But he laid particular emphasis on their duties to each other. The word he used for the "socially useless" individuals who placed self above public interest provides the origin of our own word – idiot. 

What would Pericles make of us? Certainly, we remain jealous of our rights, especially when we feel that they are threatened by others. But our preoccupation with personal aspiration has long since eroded our sense of common cause, whether measured by our engagement in civic affairs, our contribution to community life or the civility of our relations with others.

On these grounds, we are doubtless idiots.

A reasonable principle

But for the Athenians, democracy was founded on a third key principle. Alongside rights and responsibilities, they regarded the exercise of reason as indispensable to good politics. As Pericles put it:

“We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by debate, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made."

Can we honestly claim that in the EU referendum or the US Presidential elections, voters collectively exercised sound judgment based on reliable evidence, rational deliberation and open-minded debate? 

More likely, we recognise that what passed for public discourse throughout both campaigns was poisoned by deceit. The goal of the politicians who set out to mislead was clear. But instead of punishing them for their cynicism, millions suspended their disbelief and voted for them, often quite consciously choosing not to test their instincts against the evidence or their own opinions against other views. As much as they were misled, they also misled themselves. 

This was precisely the concern of democracy’s earliest critics, Plato and Aristotle among them. They worried that the system was inherently unstable not least because the people could be too easily swayed by their emotions and too readily seduced by shallow populists into decisions which were neither reasonable nor just - nor sensible. 

Representation

But if democracy is in danger, where are its defenders? When the people have been so badly misled and when the potential consequences are so serious, who should protect them if not their elected representatives? Isn’t that why in both UK and US we favour a representative system?

At least until now, we have accepted that our elected politicians have a duty not just to check the power of government but also to mitigate public opinion when it undermines sound or just policy. Our legislators should be the servants but not the slaves of their electorates.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke went further than most in believing that he would be betraying his constituents were he to sacrifice his judgement to their opinion. When in 1778 he defied them on the issue of free trade, he expressed the hope that if he forfeited their votes:

“It will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."

He lost his seat but perhaps retained his integrity.

As the democratic franchise was extended, other thinkers worried about the potential for conflict between public opinion and sound policy. In the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a close observer of the developing American democracy, warned against any decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". John Stuart Mill, in his great essay On Liberty, feared for the rights of minorities when government is mandated by majority opinion.

All these critics favoured government by elites, be they philosopher kings or aristocrats. Our societies are considerably more liberal than those they envisaged, and that is to our credit. But even if we reject their politics, we should acknowledge that recent events have given their concerns new currency.

Whose people?

Indeed, the EU referendum was everything they dreaded - a triumph for unreason, a basis for unsound policy, a threat to democratic principle and, potentially at least, a suppression of the rights of minorities. 

But at the very moment when our tradition of representative democracy should be protecting us, it seems that Parliament’s responsibilities have been radically reinterpreted. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that “the British people have spoken” and that, even though she herself doubts its wisdom, their decision cannot be challenged. It has taken the intervention of the High Court to remind her of the role of a sovereign Parliament in the making of public policy.

We know, if only because right-wing newspapers have identified them for us, who are the enemies of the people. But who are those "people” whose judgement the PM regards as sacrosanct? 

Are they “the whole nation” for which she has publicly pledged to govern – or the 37 per cent of the electorate which voted for Brexit? Must the overwhelming majority which did not now remain silent and unrepresented? And in such circumstances is democracy served or subverted?

Too many politicians, cowed by campaigners whose objectives they fear, bullied by press barons they despise and apparently indifferent to their own constitutional responsibilities, have set aside their own judgement of the public good and fooled themselves into believing that when the people speak, their will must be done whatever it is and whatever its consequences.

But ultimately there is no such thing as "the people", only an aggregation of groups and individuals with a plurality of beliefs, opinions and interests. Talking about them in the definite article obliterates those differences. Precisely because it is so definite, it is intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic.

Back from the brink

Now, more than ever, we need parties and politicians with the courage not just to listen to but also to lead public opinion, and to stand against it when they believe it wrong. 

More than ever, we need a media which acknowledges its responsibility to inform as well as to influence, and show a far greater commitment to the truth.

More than ever, we the people should recognise that a strong and healthy democracy demands more of us than we seem prepared to give.

Democracies have come and gone – in ancient Greece and modern Europe. If ours is to prevail, we must both individually and collectively acknowledge our responsibilities as well as our rights and, critically, we must restore the importance of reason – and reasonableness – to the ways in which we deliberate, debate and decide.

As it is, we have already entered an age of unreason. Unless we come to our senses, it’s impossible to predict when or where it will end. 

Peter Bradley is director of Speakers’ Corner Trust and a former Labour MP.