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France: New Law to Punish Prostitution Clients

(Apr. 28, 2016) On April 13, 2016, the French government promulgated a law that aims to end prostitution and fight human trafficking that is related to prostitution. (Loi n° 2016-444 du 13 avril 2016 visant à renforcer la lutte contre le système prostitutionnel et à accompagner les personnes prostituées (1) [Law No. 2016-444 of April 13, 2016, Aiming to Strengthen the Fight Against the Prostitution System and to Assist Prostituted Persons (1)], LEGIFRANCE (official French legal database).)

The overarching spirit of Law No. 2016-444 is to treat all prostitutes as victims. (Prostitution: la pénalisation des clients définitivement adoptée [Prostitution: The Penalization of Clients Ultimately Adopted], LES ECHOS (Apr. 6, 2016).) The two principal aspects of the new Law are furtherance of helping prostitutes transition out of prostitution and new rules to penalize clients of prostitution.  (Id.)

Support for Transition out of Prostitution

Public solicitation by prostitutes, which has been prohibited since 2003 and was punishable by up to two months in jail and a fine of up to €3,750 (about US$4,250), is no longer a punishable offense as a result of the adoption of Law No. 2016-444. (Loi n° 2016-444 du 13 avril 2016, art. 15.) The Law mandates that the government take additional measures to protect victims of prostitution and human trafficking and to provide them with special assistance, such as access to shelters and social reintegration centers. (Id. art. 5.)

The government is also required to set up a special program to help victims find jobs and activities that would allow them to leave prostitution behind and re-enter normal society. (Id.) Undocumented foreign prostitutes who cease prostitution activities and sign up for one of these programs may obtain a temporary residence permit that would allow them to legally work in France. (Id. art. 8.) The Law also creates a special fund within the government’s budget to finance measures to prevent prostitution, help victims of prostitution, and raise awareness among the public of the effects and dangers of prostitution. (Id. art. 7.)

Punishment of Clients

Law No. 2016-444 makes hiring a prostitute a punishable offense; formerly prostitution was not illegal even though public solicitation was. Anyone found guilty of being a client of prostitution may be punished with a fine of up to €1,500 (about US$1,700). (Id. art. 20.) This fine may be augmented by certain other punitive measures, such as a suspension of the person’s driver’s license or the requirement to do between 20 and 120 hours of community service.  (Id.) Additionally, a client of prostitution may be required to attend an awareness training course to sensitize him/her to the fight against prostitution. (Id. arts. 20 & 21.)

Second offenders may be punished by a fine of up to €3,750. (Id. art 20.) Being or seeking to be the client of a prostitute who is a minor or who is particularly vulnerable due to an illness, disability, or pregnancy is punishable by up to three years of imprisonment and a fine of up to €45,000 (about US$51,000). (Id.)

Reaction to the Law      

With the adoption of Law No. 2016-444 France has become the fifth European country to punish the clients of prostitution, following in the footsteps of (in this order) Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and the United Kingdom. Nonetheless it has proven to be controversial, with supporters and opponents on both sides of the political spectrum. (Prostitution: le Parlement adopte définitivement la pénalisation des clients [Prostitution: Parliament Ultimately Adopts the Penalization of Clients], LE MONDE (Apr. 7, 2016).)

Organizations representing sex workers were overwhelmingly opposed to the Law and staged demonstrations against it. (Dounia Hadni, Après deux ans et demi de débats, la pénalisation des clients votée [After Two and a Half Years of Debates, the Penalization of Clients Was Adopted], LIBERATION (Apr. 6, 2016).) Proponents of the Law, however, see it as a major victory for women’s rights and a significant step towards eliminating prostitution by targeting demand. (Prostitution: le Parlement adopte définitivement la pénalisation des clients, supra.)

Legislative Background

It took about two and a half years for Law No. 2016-444 to pass; the original proposal was first submitted in October 2013. (Proposition de Loi renforçant la lutte contre le système prostitutionnel [Bill to Strengthen the Fight Against the Prostitution System], No. 1437 (Oct. 10, 2013), ASSEMBLEE NATIONALE [NATIONAL ASSEMBLY], Quatorzième legislature [Fourteenth Legislature].) During that time, the proposed legislation went back and forth several times between the two chambers of Parliament, with the Senate amending the text to remove the penalization of clients and the National Assembly reinstating that measure. (Dossiers législatifs – Loi n° 2016-444 du 13 avril 2016 visant à renforcer la lutte contre le système prostitutionnel et à accompagner les personnes prostituées [Legislative Records – Law No. 2016-444 of April 13, 2016, Aiming to Strengthen the Fight Against the Prostitution System and to Assist Prostituted Persons], LEGIFRANCE (Apr. 14, 2016).)

The French Constitution provides that when the two chambers of Parliament are unable to agree on an identical bill, the final say should go to the National Assembly. (Constitution du 4 octobre 1958 (consolidated version as of Apr. 26, 2016), art. 45, LEGIFRANCE.) The National Assembly finally adopted the legislation, including the provisions penalizing clients of prostitution, in accordance with this constitutional provision. (Dossiers législatifs, supra.)