PARIS - They’re sitting on a bench along one of the boulevards of northern Paris. Over-the-knee white boots, fur-collared coats, mini skirts: despite the cold, all three are waiting for a car to stop by the sidewalk. They chat while smoking cigarettes, taking advantage of a momentary lull in the traffic to relax, rolling their eyes when truck drivers honk at them. Gym regulars walk by in their sweatpants, people go shopping and a man looks at them and sighs: “They’re already out on the prowl…”
It’s 8pm, this March evening, and the first prostitutes have already taken their places on Boulevard Ney, in the 18th arrondissement in Northwest Paris. Here as elsewhere, street prostitution has increased so much in the past months that local Socialist party politicians called on the Paris City Council last December to reinforce initiatives aimed at helping woman caught up in prostitution, and to increase efforts to stamp out “pimping and the sexual exhibition it triggers on the street.”
In the 18th arrondissement, the Boulevards of the Marshals, a network of thoroughfares encircling the outskirts of the city, have been taken over by Eastern European prostitution gangs. “These are highly organized systems with up to 50 girls,” says Jean-Philippe Lenormand, a senior police official of Paris’ vice squad. “They are operated by one or two people who regularly travel back and forth from the Balkans, but there are also people smugglers, “cabbies” to drive the girls to the streets and minders who keep an eye on the network’s patch. In these networks, there’s a lot of violence, constraints, and threats on the prostitutes and their families who stayed back home.”
In the neighborhoods of Chateau Rouge or Barbes in the 18th arrondissement as well as around Rue Saint-Denis in the 2nd arrondissement, newly arrived prostitutes tend to come from English-speaking Africa – Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. “These are smaller operations,” says Lenormand. “Each Mama – a former prostitute – controls four or five girls, manages the turf, finds rooms and gets a big cut of the earnings.” According to Lenormand, the Paris region – especially the Bois de Vincennes, the Bois de Boulogne, the Rue Saint-Denis and the 18th arrondissement – has 600 to 800 streetwalkers, 80 percent of whom are foreigners.
If prostitution is rife it is because it is a very lucrative activity: “The profits are easy and very big,” says Lenormand. He says a Paris prostitute who sees roughly a dozen clients a day can generate about 10,000 euros ($14,000) a month for her network. When there are dozens of girls working, income for the network can skyrocket. These gains are split between the leaders, the “cabbies”, the minders and to a lesser extent the girls: it usually takes them more than a year to pay back their smugglers.
In 2003, when he was the French Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy introduced a new law aimed at stamping out street prostitution by going after the so-called "passive soliciting" where streetwalkers mingle with potential clients without actively advertising their trade. “Why is a young Albanian girl put on the Paris streets by pimps? Because these modern-day slave-drivers don’t risk anything (…) By making passive soliciting an offense, we get these poor girls out of the networks that exploit them.” Sarkozy hoped to deal these networks a final blow by making it easier to arrest prostitutes: passive soliciting could lead up to two months in jail and a 3,750 euro ($5,300) fine.
But eight years on, street prostitution has actually increased. “This law was disastrous,” says France Arnould, director of Friends of the women’s bus, an association which gives prostitutes access to health care and legal aid. “There are more prostitutes than ever before. Many are hiding in the woods, under bridges, in places where they are very isolated which makes them very vulnerable. Some police officers have even gone so far as to confiscate condoms as proof of passive soliciting. Try and teach them about HIV after that!” Myriam El-Khomri, deputy mayor of Paris in charge of security sums up the situation: “We punish the prostitutes, not the pimps.”
On the justice system front, making soliciting a crime has been equally ineffective. Over the years, the number of cases has plummeted: in 2006, there were 529 convictions in France, 459 in 2007, 336 in 2008 and 226 in 2009. Not because prostitution has declined but because magistrates overwhelmingly direct these procedures to towards alternatives other than prosecution.
If the offender rarely makes it in front of a court, it’s simply because it is hard to characterize: how do you define an attitude – passive soliciting – that doesn’t imply any “positive” action? “According to the Cour de Cassation (France’s court of last resort), a person’s clothes – cleavage, mini skirt – or the fact of bending over to a driver or staying for hours at a red light cannot justify being arrested for passive soliciting,” explains Naima Rudloff, deputy prosecutor and director of the real-time treatment and crimes department for the Paris prosecution.
For many policemen and magistrates, Sarkozy’s tough speeches against prostitution have not amounted to much other than covering up the difficulties of a more complex battle: the fight against pimping. In 20 years, prostitution has globalised: networks have no borders, recruiting in the Balkans as well as in Africa, and taking over European sidewalks. “They’re hard to dismantle: prostitutes rarely betray their pimps,” says Lenormand. “They’re continually threatened and they know that that after a certain amount of time they can hope to take control of new recruits. In the end, everyone is on the act.”
Read the original article in French
Photo - Dionetian