ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): “Face Veils and Miniskirts: Whose Interests are Served in France’s Republic of Men?”
When France enacted its 2010 ban on face veils, rare were the voices that questioned whether criminalising alleged victims of “misogynistic pressures” – as pundits dubbed the women – would actually be helping them.
One of a handful of experts who actually interviewed women who wear the face veil, suggests the law has had the contrary effect, in actually hampering women’s sense of autonomy.
What is more, contrary to the cliche of oppressed illiterate immigrants, sociologist Agnes De Feo found that a majority of women who wear the face veil are born in France, educated and declare doing so voluntarily.
Yet despite ideological imperatives being allowed to trump facts in the discussion over the face veil, the same paternalistic impulse has emerged in a debate currently dividing the French political stage – this time involving prostitutes.
In March this year, France’s socialist government sought to reform a ruling which came into force in 2003 under former president Nicholas Sarkozy, criminalising “passive soliciting” of sex. The law placed the onus for stopping an industry predominantly run by men for the financial and sexual benefit of men, on typically vulnerable women, something the proposed amendments aimed at rectifying.
But instead of overturning the law, the French Senate – dominated by the Right – has rejected the penalisation of “clients” and instead could outlaw “the act of publicly soliciting another person for paid sex, by any means, including passive behaviour.” In a nod to the Republic’s overbearing logic, police officers in France could soon be required to monitor women’s hems at both ends of the spectrum – face veils and miniskirts.
Marisol Touraine, the French minister for Social Affairs, described the move as “unbelievable and regressive” and bemoaned the criminalisation of prostitutes, rather than seeing them as victims. Critics of the proposal argue it could lead to the targeting of prostitutes in order to meet policing figures, distract officers from more pressing concerns and is ultimately more about “cleaning up” the image of certain districts, rather than concern for women.
Debates on prostitution in France are divided between “abolitionists” and those who prefer to see less criminalisation of prostitution, such as the STRASS, the French sex worker’s trade union. STRASS argues that the penalisation of clients exacerbates a climate of criminality around prostitution – ultimately harmful to women working within it – but both groups support decriminalising “soliciting,” viewed as punishing already vulnerable women through fines and possible jail time.
But just as the debate in France chose to ignore the voice of women who wear the face veil, in favour of ideological debates over the meaning of laicite and integration, the current stance among French conservatives is led by a moralising discourse concerning the moral abhorrence of prostitution. Criminalising soliciting sex, it is claimed, helps the police identify prostitutes and maintain a sense of the gravity of the crime, an essential aspect to countering it.
However, evidence from studies underpinning the Swedish approach, which since 1999 has seen the criminalisation of clients, not sex workers, suggests otherwise. Based on grass-roots discussions with women working in prostitution, the Swedish model has led to a decrease in street prostitution and prostitution networks have come to view the country as a “dead market.”
The hypocrisy of the sanctimonious line towed by French conservatives is all the more glaring when one considers the emergence of several controversies highlighting the widespread use of prostitution by the French elite. In 2013, a coalition of French intellectuals, authors and philosophers came together to put forward a petition entitled “Hands off our prostitutes” outlining their belief in their right to access prostitution. The title was all the more egregious in that it played off a historic petition launched by women in the 1970s demanding the legalisation of abortion, and echoed an anti-racism slogan Touche pas a mon pote (“Don’t touch my friend”). Apparently for a certain class of French men – typically quiet on actual issues of discrimination – campaigning for the right to sexually exploit women is the new anti-racism.
Not to mention the case of former chief of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who along with 13 others, was charged in February this year, with aiding and assisting prostitution. Much has been made of DSK’s lascivious “elite sex parties” involving prostitutes and multiple accusations of sexual assault, ruining his political career. Much less has been written about DSK’s alleged victims – “Mounia” the prostitute, Nafissatou Diallo, the hotel maid – Arab and black women subjected to the violent whims of a powerful French politician. The parallel is a fitting one for a system in which the full humanity of a sub-class of women fails to register and where racist overtones bleed most evidently into the treatment of minorities on the fringes.
Gregoire Thery, secretary general of Mouvement du Nid, which campaigns against prostitution, points out that in the special commission established to investigate the issues at hand, 75% of senators who voted against the penalisation of clients were men, while an overwhelming majority of women voted for the law. The Senate – overwhelmingly in favour of criminalising prostitutes – is 76% male.
The Conservative UMP’s stance of condemning prostitution affords a facade of moral righteousness to an argument for the criminalisation of women, by the very men recent scandals suggest regularly exploit them. Whether when talking about women in face veils or women working in prostitution, concern appears less about women’s needs, and all about men’s sense of entitled access to female bodies.
For professor of French politics at the University College London (UCL), Philippe Marliere, the issue stems from the very conception of the French Republican ideal: “the so-called ‘republican’ stand (UMP or PS) is hypocritical and relies on pseudo-universal morals.” For Marliere, these policies – whether in relation to prostitution or Muslim women’s dress – “are not meant to be fair and effective, but to criminalise and to discriminate against minorities in France.”
In the case of women in face veils, the law has hardened an already tense climate in which Muslim women are increasingly the object of vigilante-style attacks and day to day discrimination. Criminalising already vulnerable women – by virtue of their profession or otherwise marginal status in society – only entrenches prejudice. This is all the more worrying when one considers that 90% of women working in prostitution in France are foreign nationals, at a time of steepening racism and Far-Right led anti-immigrant rhetoric.
While restrictions on Muslim women’s dress have often been justified on the grounds of the “uniquely problematic” integration of Muslims, current debates highlight the exclusionary function of the Republic’s universalist claims. Those who do not conform to a narrow and reified conception of French values are ostracised and policed by an entitled elite which views women’s bodies – particularly those of black and Arab women – as property of the Republic, and chattel for some of its representatives.
This hollow republicanism and its politicised principles, from laicite to women’s rights, functions less to serve the interests of women and more to cement the sexist and racist logic of a prevailing class of men.
You can read the original piece on the abc.net.au website, here