To the uninitiated the ragged, blue-plastic bag knotted to a stick in the ground, fluttering by a road in the French forest of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, might be nothing more than litter.
The white, thigh-high boots and tight shorts of the woman under the trees reveal something else, however. As prostitution has been chased from the posher parts of Paris, prostitutes have begun to ply their trade elsewhere, from forests outside the capital to the heavily immigrant Boulevard Barbès in the 18th arrondissement, where thriving business starts on the pavements in broad daylight and continues long into the night.
Last month Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the new Socialist government’s minister for women, caused a stir by declaring that she wants to ban the trade altogether.
"The question is not whether we want to abolish prostitution — the answer is yes — but how to give ourselves the means to do it," she said.
A year ago the National Assembly passed a resolution reaffirming France’s "abolitionist" views and its desire to create a "society without prostitution." Prostitution itself is not illegal, but brothels are. So are soliciting and pimping, the charge laid against Dominique Strauss-Kahn in March. Now the minister has raised the stricter idea of criminalizing not only prostitutes’ enablers but also their clients.
Hundreds of prostitutes, some masked and some transvestite, recently marched through Paris to protest and demand their rights. One group carried a banner proclaiming "proud to be tarts." Others argued that criminalization would drive the business underground, increase health risks and put them more at the mercy of traffickers.
Many girls are forced into prostitution to repay sums, ranging from 5,000 euros ($6,100) to 50,000 euros, charged by traffickers bringing them to France. In the past 15 years foreign networks have replaced homegrown ones. In 1994, less than 25 per cent of prostitutes working in France were foreign. Today the figure is more than 90 per cent, and nearly two-thirds of pimps are foreigners. More than half the women come from eastern Europe or Africa, with a new trend in young girls from English-speaking Nigeria.
France has a long history of accommodating prostitution. Under Napoleon prostitutes were registered and inspected for their health, and brothels were legal. The filles de joie would wander freely with their clients under the colonnades of the Palais Royal. By 1840 there were some 200 brothels in Paris, their salons featured in late-19th century paintings by Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec and favored by Britain’s Edward VII.
Tolerance came to an abrupt end in 1946, however, when brothels were outlawed. Since then laws to limit prostitution have been gradually tightened.
Police efforts today concentrate on traffickers who engage in what Manuel Valls, the interior minister, calls a "new slavery." In 2010 France dismantled 39 international prostitution rings, most of them run from eastern Europe and the Balkans. But criminalizing clients, as Sweden has done, would require a new law and a different approach to policing.
As it is, clamping down on prostitution tends only to displace it. In 2003 Nicolas Sarkozy, then interior minister, made soliciting illegal. Since then it has become less visible in some neighborhoods. However, the number of prostitutes operating in the Bois de Boulogne, on the capital’s western edge, doubled in 2011 alone, according to the Paris police commissioner.
His predecessor ordered the police to get rid of vans parked there for use by prostitutes. But, as a parliamentary report conceded last year, "prostitution, far from having disappeared, only moved geographically" to such places as the Saint-Germain forest.
The plastic bags are likely to flutter for some time yet.