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Parisian Lawmakers Again Consider Legalizing Prostitution - 2002-07-08

A debate is raging in Paris over the fate of about 7,000 prostitutes who work in the city. The Paris city government is considering legislation to outlaw prostitution, but others want to legalize it, with conditions.

Walk along the Rue St. Denis in downtown Paris, and soon the tourists and the cafes thin out and seedier landmarks take their place. Sex shops, patrolled by tough-looking security guards, compete for customers. So do French, African, Asian and Eastern European prostitutes who solicit on just about every corner.

The government of Parisian Mayor Bertrand Delanoe wants to crack down prostitution in the city, by fining and imprisoning the clients and managers of streetwalkers. Other anti-prostitution activists, such as Jean-Pierre Cochard, want to go even further.

Mr. Cochard is a former magistrate who heads a national anti-prostitution association called Les Equipes. He believes prostitution should be abolished not only in Paris, but throughout the country. The debate has heated up since a conservative Paris lawmaker, Francoise de Panafieu, suggested last week that prostitution should be tolerated, but strictly regulated, as in the Netherlands.

In Dutch cities like Amsterdam, health inspectors visit brothels housing the prostitutes, who must pay government taxes. Brothels were once popular in Paris, as well. Artists like Toulouse Lautrec and certain French "gentlemen" visited the city's famous "maisons closes," where prostitutes worked. The brothels were legal and supervised by the Paris government.

But in 1946, brothels were banned and shuttered. Today, prostitutes have fanned out from downtown Paris, to parks on the city's outskirts. On the St. Denis strip, reaction to the idea of reopening legal Paris brothels was mixed.

One 43-year-old prostitute called Monica expressed approval. She said legal brothels might force out criminals involved in sex trafficking, and allow prostitutes like herself to receive health and retirement benefits. But other prostitutes said brothels would limit their freedom.

Under a new French law, clients who have sex with child prostitutes can be jailed and heavily fined. Several French cities, including Strasbourg and Orleans, have banned prostitution in certain districts. But in Paris, lawmakers and activists are still at odds over what to do.