PARIS: French sex workers failed on Friday in their bid to overturn a law that bans paying for sex, as the country’s Constitutional Council ruled that it does not breach the constitution.
A law introduced in 2016 made it illegal to buy sex in France but not to sell it, shifting the criminal responsibility to clients who can be fined if caught.
The Swedish-inspired law has sharply divided French feminists and reopened a debate on whether women should be allowed to sell their bodies.
Some groups say the law helps protect women from trafficking and exploitation by discouraging prostitution.
But many active sex workers say it has made their jobs more dangerous and deprived them of income.
Nine campaign groups had joined forces with around 30 sex workers to launch a constitutional challenge, arguing that the law breached fundamental rights to sexual liberty and to do business.
But the Constitutional Council ruled Friday that the law helped protect women “by depriving pimps of their profits”.
The law “fights against this activity and against the sexual exploitation of human beings, criminal activities founded on coercion and enslavement.”
The groups who brought the case immediately blasted the ruling as “a bad decision, dangerous for the health and rights of sex workers”.
The law, which took years to make its way through parliament after fierce debate, punishes first-time offenders with fines of up to 1,500 euros ($1,700).
People caught repeatedly paying for sex can be fined up to 3,750 euros.
Sex workers say the risk of these fines has led clients to pressure them into agreeing to go with them to more isolated places where they are vulnerable to attack.
The murder of a Peruvian transgender sex worker named Vanesa Campos last August, in the Bois de Boulogne park west of Paris, sparked protests over the issue.
Campos was shot dead in the woods while trying to stop a group of men robbing her client, and protesters charged that were it not for the law, she would not have been working in such an isolated place.
Sex workers say the drop in business since the law was brought in has also forced them into agreeing to riskier work, such as unprotected sex.
Friday’s ruling recognised that the law “restricted all prostitution, including sexual acts presented as taking place freely between consenting adults”.
But it concluded that “in the vast majority of cases, people who end up working in prostitution are victims of pimping and trafficking”.
Patrice Spinosi, the lawyer for sex workers who brought the case, complained that the law was “schizophrenic”.
He argued that “it should have banned prostitution” outright if its conclusion was that the trade represented the exploitation of women.
He also accused the state of “infantilising prostitutes”.
“Who are you to forbid me from doing what I want with my body?” he asked.