France’s reputation for a relaxed attitude toward sex has long fed the world’s public opprobrium—and its secret fantasies. Mark Twain articulated the typical American attitude when he declared that “France has neither winter nor summer nor morals—apart from these drawbacks it is a fine country.” Media exposure of the recent scooter-borne nocturnal tomcatting by France’s insatiable president, François Hollande, confirmed the accuracy of Twain’s opinion, although the country does now at least have some winter and summer. Mirabile dictu, it is even turning its attention to the question of morals.
For the moment, though, Paris hot spots like naughty Place Pigalle continue to be one of the first stops in the city for many a red-blooded American lad. And the British still hanker after what they delicately refer to as a dirty weekend in Paris, visions of incredibly skilled sexual gymnasts dancing in their heads. A visit to a Paris brothel was, after all, part of an English gentleman’s Grand Tour back in the day. German veterans of the wartime occupation still recall fondly the brothels where they met jolly filles de joie—no fewer than 22 Paris bordels catered exclusively, and dexterously, to German soldiers. Today Germans nostalgically call a condom ein Paris.
Like his subjects, King George V considered Paris synonymous with prostitutes, as seen in his admonition to his new foreign secretary in 1935. Anthony Eden had recently taken over the Foreign Office after his predecessor, Sir Samuel Hoare, was forced to resign over his negotiation in Paris of the Hoare-Laval Pact that would let Mussolini keep a good part of Ethiopia after invading it. The proposed deal caused public uproar in Britain against a perceived sellout of the African country. When Eden had his first audience with the king to receive his marching orders, the monarch, in a merry mood, warned him against similar dealings with the French. “No more coals to Newcastle,” the sovereign said with heavy-handed wit. “No more Hoares to Paris.”
Admittedly, the French historically have never done much to discourage their reputation for leniency toward the flesh trade. King Louis IX, a most Christian 13th-century sovereign venerated as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, leader of two holy crusades, builder of the glorious Sainte Chapelle as a fabulous Paris reliquary for Christ’s crown of thorns, decreed that brothels would be allowed on no fewer than nine Paris streets. The tradition continued, century after century. When his turn came, Napoleon indulged human foibles by making sure that the capital’s maisons de tolérance and maisons closes were well run and the girls given medical check-ups. By 1810, Paris had some 180 officially approved brothels.
They were visited by generals and judges, business bigwigs and bishops. First-class establishments were decorated with singular luxury and originality. One such featured rooms in different national styles—a Chinese room, a Russian room, a Persian room, and so on. The French government thoughtfully included brothel stopovers for foreign guests on state visits, the official program diplomatically listing them as “meeting with the President of the Senate.” Artists from Toulouse-Lautrec to Van Gogh and Gauguin famously enjoyed them and often painted their personnel. They openly advertised and figured in travel brochures; during hours when business was slow, tourists were given guided tours. At one, Le Chabanais, the Prince of Wales had his own special room.
All this ended thanks to one Marthe Richard and the post-war rise of the puritan left. (Moralists please note: I do not condone prostitution, or selling or buying sexual services. However, the practice has been a regrettable fact of life since the beginnings of recorded time. The French merely added a touch of elegance and lack of hypocrisy.) A former hooker who worked the streets of garrison towns at age 16, Marthe graduated to procuring girls for German officers during the occupation. After the liberation in 1944, she turned respectable, joined the communist-backed Resistance Party and was elected to the Paris municipal council.
Bent as usual on coercive social reform, the communists wanted the brothels closed and Marthe, ironically enough, became their chief prude and standard-bearer. The loi Marthe Richard, passed on April 13, 1946, closed all Paris brothels. A nationwide ban soon followed. All it actually changed was that the girls were put onto the streets without medical supervision and vulnerable to the first Jack the Ripper who came along. The brothels simply became sordid hotels de passe with rooms by the hour. With Gallic logic, prostitution was never banned, only soliciting and procuring.
France’s new socialist government has now seen an opportunity for social engineering—as well as a chance to deflect public attention from the country’s real socio-economic problems. Last fall it introduced with self-righteous fanfare a bill reversing the usual approach to discouraging play-for-pay sex: Instead of penalizing prostitutes, it would hit the johns, making it a crime to purchase sexual favors. Proposing the bill in the National Assembly was the government’s 36-year-old, Moroccan-born minister for women’s affairs, Najat Vallaud-Belkacen, a young woman of aggressive virtue. She led the charge with vivid descriptions of prostitutes “bought and sold, swapped, detained, raped and tortured, deceived, trafficked, despoiled.… I don’t want a society in which women have a price.”
Her declared goal is nothing less than “abolishing prostitution in France” by drying up demand. First offenders caught with their pants down would be fined $2,000, repeaters $5,000. With French lawmakers in a double bind, there was little debate over the bill. They obviously could not appear to favor prostitution, but fully 78 percent of their constituents opposed penalizing clients. The bill was rushed through the National Assembly during a first reading in December, with final passage expected this spring. Assuming it goes through, the country will, on paper at least, go from being one of Europe’s most tolerant on the issue to having some of its toughest laws.
But old traditions die hard, especially in France. Opposition to the bill has been widespread and vociferous. Everyone—from academics and intellectuals to movie stars and sex workers—has weighed in, arguing against criminalization for purely ideological reasons.
One petition was signed by 60 celebrities, including Jack Lang, a loquacious former socialist minister of culture, the popular singer Charles Aznavour, and the beauteous actress Catherine Deneuve, who played a bored middle-class housewife spending her afternoons in a high-class whorehouse in the 1960s film Belle de Jour. “Without supporting or promoting prostitution,” they wrote, “we ask for a real debate without ideological prejudice.” One of France’s leading feminists, Elisabeth Badinter, a professor at the elite Ecole Polytechnique, surprisingly called it hypocritical and “a declaration of hate to male sexuality.” The international organization Doctors Without Borders warned the measure would be dangerous for public health. Prostitutes would leave city centers in favor of less exposed sites, it said, making them less inclined to seek health care and more exposed to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Then there was the outspoken macho manifesto entitled “Don’t Touch My Whore,” signed by 343 men provocatively self-described as those “who have gone, go to, or will go to prostitutes.” They ranged from right-wing commentators getting in their licks against the maladroit Hollande administration, to the lawyer defending the randy Dominique Strauss-Kahn against charges of organizing and taking part in orgies with paid women in several countries. These bon vivants declared in the best traditions of French sexual broad-mindedness, “We believe that everyone has the right to freely sell their bodies—and even to enjoy doing so. And we don’t want lawmakers decreeing which of our desires and pleasures are legal.”
But the most telling opposition comes from those most directly concerned: the police and the girls. Cops warn that if soliciting is no longer illegal, they won’t be able to arrest streetwalkers and bring them in for questioning, a vital law enforcement tool in uncovering illegal prostitution networks and getting tips on other criminal activities. “If we can’t question the girls, that will dry up one of our best sources of information on today’s underworld, from white slavery to drugs and arms trafficking, and terrorism,” one police commissioner told Le Figaro. Another questioned exactly how officers were supposed to catch johns in flagrante. “To arrest a client, we’ll have to catch him in the act,” grouses one. “Maybe the senators and congressmen can show us how to do that.” Says another: “There aren’t enough cops in France to keep an eye on all potential clients, and we’re not going to spend our days spying on bidets.”
Associations representing angry sex workers have picketed the National Assembly chanting, “You sleep with us, but you vote against us!” Others make an economic argument. “Isn’t there enough unemployment already without putting us out of business?” asks one. “Fining the customer is like saying you can open a shop but clients are not allowed to enter.” Another, interviewed in the Bois de Boulogne on the western outskirts of Paris, where squadrons of streetwalkers boldly entice drivers of passing cars, said she is feeling the pinch, as it were. “The clients aren’t coming, and the few that do all ask the same question: ‘Is the law going through?’ What are we going to do?”
To be sure, white slavery and other forms of abuse of poor, vulnerable women must be eradicated. Every responsible government has programs to do just that. Unfortunately, abolishing prostitution itself in a free society usually has proved to be about as realistic as outlawing rainy weekends. The vast majority of the French believe this ideologically motivated, ham-fisted socialist puritanism will be just as ineffective. So, given the history of failed attempts to legislate morals, something tells me that France’s notorious joy girls won’t miss a trick.