France must bring back the brothel to protect its prostitutes from exploitation, trafficking and aggression in the street, an MP from Nicolas Sarkozy’s rightwing party has said.
Chantal Brunel, a member of the ruling UMP, called on French authorities to study the possibility of legalising centres where sex workers could serve clients within a regulated and protected framework.
It was time, she said, to move away from attempts to stamp out prostitution and instead focus on making the sex trade more safe and transparent.
According to a CSA opinion poll, Brunel’s stance is supported by a majority of French people: 59% of respondents supported the reopening of so-called maisons closes (literally, closed houses).
While that number has fallen slightly in recent years, the number opposed to the reintroduction of brothels has dropped from 26% seven years ago to just 10% now. Women remain markedly more against the idea than men.
In 2003, Sarkozy, then interior minister, made passive solicitation a crime punishable by a jail term or hefty fine. Brunel voted for the law at the time, but now says the crackdown failed. She is urging the government to look at other countries, such as the Netherlands and Switzerland, in which licensed brothels are legal.
“Prostitutes are finding themselves even more badly treated and damaged than before,” she said. “We have to stop their exploitation.”
Amid the shame of wartime “horizontal” Nazi collaboration and growing concern for women’s rights, 1,400 maisons closes were shut in 1946 under what is known as the Marthe Richard law. Richard, a prostitute turned politician, fought to have brothels outlawed out of a desire to kill off the sex trade for good.
Accused by some activists of encouraging a return to the bad old days, Brunel, author of a new book entitled Putting an End to Violence against Women, insists she is not calling for the resurrection of brothels as they were once known, but envisages maisons ouvertes in which shelter and medical care would be provided.
“The idea is not to return to the situation before 1946,” she said. She would like to see prostitutes working in groups “like in professional offices, like accountants”. A boss figure or “landlord” to whom the workers would give part of their earnings would not be “essential”, she added.
Françoise Gil, a sociologist and member of a women’s rights association, agreed the distinction was crucial. She said she would be against the return of maisons closes, but would be in favour of reopening maisons ouvertes in which sex workers could gather without a boss or a pimp.
Other activists, however, are outraged at the proposals irrespective of caveats. “What kind of a society is it that shuts up its women for the pleasure of its men?” said Bruno Lemettre, president of the Mouvement du Nid anti-prostitution association. “Allowing such a thing in the country of human rights would be unacceptable,” he said.
There are thought to be between 20,000 and 30,000 full-time sex workers – male and female – in France, 80% from abroad. A working group, of which Brunel is part, is due to meet next week to discuss the country’s approach to prostitution.