Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

The French state against sex workers: a security and racist logic

The French state ostensibly sees sex workers as victims, but its combined legal framework positions them first and foremost as offenders, especially when they are migrants.

Syndicat du travail sexuel
2 March 2016


Sex workers' march. Photo provided by author. All rights reserved.

Since the 1960 ratification of the ‘UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others’, the French state officially positions itself as ‘abolitionist’, a position reaffirmed by the National Assembly in 2011. While this position considers prostitutes as victims, mostly victims of trafficking, the laws on prostitution in France actually position sex workers first and foremost as offenders. While sex work in itself is not criminalised – that is, the act of selling sexual services in exchange for money – many practices inherently bounded to the practice of sex work are considered as criminal offences.

The criminal framing of sex work in France

There are several laws that work together to effectively define sex workers as offenders, even those that ostensibly frame them as ‘victims’.

Firstly, the laws against procuring define the latter as “the act, by whoever, by any way, of helping, assisting, or protecting the prostitution of others”. This very large and vague definition initiates an “offence of solidarity” towards sex workers, since whoever supports their professional activity, such as by providing a workplace, and whoever shares their benefits, for instance partners, can be accused of pimping. Sex workers themselves are accused of procuring when sharing a workplace.

Secondly, the law against soliciting criminalises “the fact, by any means, including a passive attitude, of soliciting anyone for the purpose of inciting him to sexual relations in exchange for a remuneration or a promise of remuneration”. This law condemns in a similar way, by keeping vague the definition of solicitation and in doing so leaving it open to interpretation by individual police officers. Ten years after its establishment, evaluations by state authorities and organisations confirm that street sex workers, especially migrant sex workers, are strongly repressed by police abuse and the threat of deportation. It appears that the underlying purpose of this law was to more efficiently control migratory flows.

Finally, with the proposal of a new law aimed at fighting the ‘prostitutional system’, we note a shift away from the criminalisation of soliciting and towards the criminalisation of clients (the so-called Swedish model). The idea is to stem the demand in order to protect victims of prostitution and thus, according to the promoters of the proposal, to fight against trafficking. By including an ‘exiting programme’, the proposed legislation provides (weak) social welfare benefits and (precarious) residence permits, both conditioned to the cessation of sex work. Unfortunately, the hype generated by media coverage has been disastrous for the working conditions of migrants, with reports of increased harassment by the police in Paris and elsewhere.

Approaches that criminalise clients have been criticised for harming sex workers, especially with regard to increasing stigmatisation and isolation, which in turn fosters violence and abuse. Anti-trafficking activists and researchers have also questioned the very logic of ending demand in order to fight against trafficking. While the demand for exploitative labour practices is surely one pull factor for trafficking, the criminalisation of such demand fails to address the structural vulnerability of workers, especially migrant workers, to slavery-like working conditions.


Photo provided by author. All rights reserved.

From the far right to the far left, the support for this proposal is almost unanimous. Presented as crucial to the fight against the commodification of women's bodies, its announced goal is to fight against trafficking and pimping networks. Contrarily, we understand migrant women as its first targets. Indeed, while migrant women are automatically considered victims of trafficking, in order to get the right to assistance they must leave sex work. As previously mentioned, this is a legal activity in France. Nevertheless, police officers are still being sent to areas where sex work takes place and sex workers can still be prosecuted for soliciting, procuring, or illegal stay. The switch from criminalising sex workers to criminalising clients is only a rhetorical trick.

The broader political context

The repressive framing of sex work in France needs to be understood in relation to the particular political context. Specifically, there has been a reframing of racist policies ever since the refugee crisis and terrorist attacks prompted the establishment (and possibly the constitutionalisation) of a ‘state of emergency’. The same government supporting the law against the ‘prostitutional system’ is also in the process of passing several security-related laws and migration management measures. Stigmatisation of migrant and non-white people, arbitrary arrests and raids, bans from specific territories: all these measures have been presented as the only way to fight against terrorism, yet they will also negatively affect many social movements and social groups, including sex workers. So called ‘domestic’ values, such as freedom of expression or equality between men and women, have been used to justify a type of security management that only increases control on and repression of the very first victims of these wrongs – refugees and migrant sex workers.

Trade unions, social movements, and left parties have been critical of governmental regulation of terrorism and migration: the refugee crisis led to a more comprehensive understanding of the issue of smuggling, so much so that even a mainstream media like Le Monde can publish that “the struggle against smugglers hides a struggle against migrants”. However, the same unions, movements, and parties support similar government strategies when applied to sex work.

Sex workers continue to be the first hidden target of the fight against trafficking, and when they report police harassment they are often accused of lying.

Our union trains people on their rights so that they can learn to defend those rights. We also provide legal support in cases of violence, (police) harassment, and exploitation. We know that the increase in smugglers and pimps has resulted from policies that closed borders and made sex workers and migrants privileged targets for both police and exploiters. In order to fight exploitation and trafficking, we demand the use of common laws rather than exceptional laws for sex work, and the end of the criminalisation of people that do support these populations. We demand rights for migrants and sex workers, as well as the mass regularisation of migrants.

The work to be done is two-fold. In part we must answer day-to-day emergencies, but we must also build solidarity and fight against the exclusion of sex workers and migrants from political and unionist movements. We need to recognise that the same strategy lies behind the criminalisation of solidarity with migrants and/or sex workers: the reinforcement of a security state. That strategy seeks to create divisions among the exploited and to prevent the construction of a unified and strong social movement.

This article is published as part of the 'Sex workers speak: who listens?' series on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, generously sponsored by COST Action IS1209 ‘Comparing European Prostitution Policies: Understanding Scales and Cultures of Governance' (ProsPol). ProsPol is funded by COST. The University of Essex is its Grant Holder Institution.

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