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The French National Assembly’s decision earlier this month to pass legislation criminalizing the clients of sex workers and restricting sex trafficking groups was a significant triumph for Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the Minister for Women's Rights. But will the legislation really help the thousands of women forced into prostitution by sex trafficking rings in France?

The bill has divided public discourse in recent weeks. There has been a manifesto written in opposition by self-proclaimed clients of sex workers and published by Le Causeur magazine, while several feminist groups have voiced their support. On the day of the vote, 200 sex workers protested outside the National Assembly in Paris.

The protest was organized by the sex worker union STRASS, which called the law "nothing more than an attack on prostitutes." According to their analysis of the law, it would lead to "even more stigmatization and repression."

In accepting her ministerial position last June, Vallaud-Belkacem said that making prostitution in France "disappear" by prosecuting the clients of sex workers was her priority. She is the first Minister for Women’s Rights to be appointed since Jacques Chirac's term as the president of France ended in 2007. She is also a spokesperson for François Hollande's government. A 36-year-old Muslim with dual French and Moroccan nationality, her appointment was seen as the symbolic "face" of the new Socialist government. She is one of three Muslims in Hollande's cabinet. At the time of her appointment, the far-right questioned her commitment to the French state due to her dual nationality.

Image Credit: AP

The French state championed policies of regulation for sex work in the 19th century, but has been progressively committed to abolishing sex work since brothels (maisons closes) were made illegal in 1946. Now, the legislation passed by the National Assembly adopts the Nordic model of criminalization. The model, which prosecutes the clients rather than those who sell sex, was seen first in Sweden in 1999 and later adopted by Norway and Iceland in their aim to address the violence and poor working conditions experienced by many sex workers.

Up to 90% of France's estimated 20,000 sex workers are immigrants and most are caught in sex trafficking rings, according to government figures. However, STRASS has also questioned this estimate. They call attention to the potential bias of figures based on street arrests of sex workers, who are the most visible but not the only type of sex workers in France.

Vallaud-Belkacem's bill attempts to disrupt these sex trafficking groups directly, demanding that internet servers block trafficking websites. Overall, the bill shifts legislative focus from considering sex workers as criminals to treating them as victims.

"Criminalizing any aspect of prostitution has extremely negative effects on the health and rights of people in sex work," Carole Vance, a professor at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, told me. 

The Swedish government is proud that criminalizing sex workers' clients has seen the number sex workers go down by half.

However, "data from Sweden show that the main effect of criminalization of purchasers is to drive sex work underground and out of sight, which is not the same as 'eliminating' it," contested Vance. The impact of equivalent legislation in France, a more populous nation with a higher number of sex workers, could be even more problematic.

"Whether criminalization is initially effective or not, the issue is now firmly on [France's] public agenda," Susan H. Perry, a professor of politics at the American University in Paris, explained to me. "Najat Vallaud-Belkacem has established herself as a champion of women's rights, and eventually one or two big name politicians will be caught in the snare."

This "snare" of opposing Vallaud-Belkacem's legislation seems to have already concerned some representatives in the French parliament. Although the reform was passed with a convincing count of 268 to 138 votes in favor of the legislation, 79 representatives abstained from voting — a figure that Vallaud-Belkacem said she found regretful.

Barbara Pompili, the co-president of the Green Party, was willing to take a side on the issue. On the day of the vote, she spoke to the National Assembly on her decision to oppose the legislation. She opened with the statements, "I am a woman. I am a feminist. I have fought for years against all violence against women."

It seems that Pompili is well aware of the political pitfalls of publically opposing reform that promises to prevent violence towards women. "I do not doubt the intentions of the authors and defenders of the text," she continued, before describing the risks associated with such criminalization.

"Najat Vallaud-Belkacem has stood up for a set of values that France has a whole rolling discourse in," said Yasmine Ergas, a director at the School of International Public Affairs at Columbia University, in an interview. "Specifically," she continued, "what women's equality in the secular republic looks like." However, Ergas — who specializes in women's rights and government policy — believes that focus should be placed on the environment that leads women into sex work, as well as the dangers of its marketplace.

The upper house of the French parliament — dominated by the center-right party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) — must now judge whether Vallaud-Belkacem's vision of women's equality in France can be realized. Whether her legislation will prove to be more than a symbolic gesture in protecting women from violence and sexual exploitation in France remains to be seen.