France has just made buying sex illegal, and the rest of the continent will be watching.

Don't believe France's reputation as a country where sexual peccadillos are always overlooked. After a vote by the country's National Assembly on Wednesday, it has just joined a growing group of European nations where buying sex is now illegal.

France is not alone in its fresh efforts to curb prostitution. The move follows similar bans in Sweden and Norway, while other European countries are also scaling back laissez-faire prostitution policies. Germany is poised to change its liberal sex trade laws, while Ireland is also debating a measure similar to France's. Is the end of legal prostitution in Europe in sight?

It may partly depend on how well France's new laws work. Unlike historical prostitution bans that penalize sex workers, the new laws target customers, making the purchase of sex illegal rather than its sale. Anyone caught paying for sexual services in France will be subject to a fine of €1,500, rising to a maximum of €3,750 for repeat offenders. This follows a model established in Sweden in 1999, but no country as large as France has yet tried anything similar.

Beyond destroying their business, the new rules are supposed to go a little easier on prostitutes themselves. A law that fines prostitutes caught soliciting, introduced under Nicolas Sarkozy's government, will be repealed. French prostitutes will also get support to leave the business, in the form of easier access to working papers (many are non-EU nationals), housing and a transitional stipend of €383 a month.

France's new laws weren't passed without a fight from opponents. Their best-known objectors are a group of influential men who co-wrote an open letter called the "Manifesto of the 343 Bastards." The Bastards, who include philosopher Pascal Bruckner and Dominique Strauss Kahn's lawyer, Richard Malka, came out against any law changes that paint men who frequent prostitutes as "frustrated, perverted or psychopaths [so] described by proponents of a repression that is disguised as feminist struggle." While agreeing to the need for legal sanctions against sex without consent, sexual violence and human trafficking, the group has rallied behind the slogan "Touche Pas a Mon Pute" ("Don't touch my whore").

For anyone familiar with French social politics, the group's references are both familiar and controversial. Their model is the famous "Manifesto of the 343 Sluts," a 1971 letter signed by 343 French women in public life, including Simone De Beauvoir and Catherine Deneuve. Authored by women who admitted to having had pregnancies terminated, the campaign speeded the adoption of pro-choice laws in France. The pro-prostitution catchphrase "Touche Pas a Mon Pute," meanwhile, is modeled on "Touche Pas a Mon Pote" ("Don't Touch My Mate") a famous anti-racist campaign slogan coined in the 1980s.

While 1971 letter signatory Catherine Deneuve has come out against the new prostitution laws as well, there's been plenty of distaste at the suggestion of equivalence between the two struggles. The 343 Bastards are, after all, protesting their rights over other people's bodies, rather than their own. But despite grabbing the spotlight, many French people agree with them, including most MPs from France's rightwing opposition party, the UMP, and many prostitutes who defend their profession as a free choice.

France's neighbor Germany, meanwhile, will be watching its plans closely. Brothels have been legal in Germany since 2002, and it is no coincidence that Germany's largest brothel is just a few miles drive from the French border. Prostitution is a huge business in Germany, which has experienced a boom in sex tourism and now has at least 400,000 prostitutes working within its borders. Germany's Federal Statistics Office estimates that the country's sex trade is responsible for €15 billion in economic activity each year, but it seems many Germans are now regretting the shift to legal prostitution. Influential feminist magazine Emma has launched a campaign to get it repealed, and they seem to be winning politicians over. The incoming coalition government plans to revise prostitution laws, and have just agreed to ban "flat rate" brothels, where customers can purchase unlimited sex during a single visit for a fixed fee. They are also making it a crime to buy sex from someone who has been trafficked.

Meanwhile in Ireland, a consortium called Turn off the Red Light is campaigning for law changes similar to France's. Irish public opinion is being swayed by a series of high profile exposés of the sex trade's international reach, pushing the issue up the public agenda. Even in the famously permissive Netherlands, Amsterdam is reining in its red light district.

So is this part of a general European swing towards cultural conservatism, on par with Croatia’s recent referendum against same-sex marriage? Sex worker advocate groups such as Germany's Hydra believe it is, seeing pressure for law changes as an attack on a legitimate profession and a way of endangering women by pushing them underground. 

The issue driving the recent bans, however, is really that of human trafficking. According to a EU-funded report, over 23,000 people were trafficked in Europe between the years 2008 to 2010, and 62 percent of them for were destined for sexual exploitation. While pro-prostitution debate often focuses on a hypothetical free woman making an entirely unforced choice, the reality is that many European prostitutes have no such freedom. According to anti-trafficking campaigners, legal prostitution is making this situation worse, giving pimps and traffickers ways to operate further and hide their victims in plain sight.

Abolishing legal prostitution does seem to reduce trafficking. In Sweden, prostitution has plummeted since a 1999 ban on buying sex. In 2007, Der Spiegel reported a maximum of 130 prostitutes working in Stockholm, compared to 5,000 in its smaller Norwegian neighbor Oslo (which in 2009, followed Sweden’s ban with its own). And while an estimated 600 women are believed to be trafficked into Sweden every year, this number pails in comparison to the 15,000 trafficked annually to Finland, a country with a population half the size.

But of course, no one can verify how much prostitution and trafficking continues undetected. The amount may have drastically fallen, but occasional cases such as that of a judge fined for visiting a brothel suggest that a prostitution underworld does persist in Sweden.  Meanwhile rapes and sexual assaults (or at least, the numbers reported to police) remain high in the country and have increased slightly since 1999. Without truly unambiguous results, the success of the Swedish model is still a matter of debate. This is why Europe will be watching France's new plans especially closely. Their success or failure will probably determine the shape of the continent's sex trade laws for decades to come.

Top image: People attend a demonstration to abolish prostitution in France in front the National Assembly in Paris November 29, 2013. (REUTERS/Charles Platiau)

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