When A Mid-Sized City Meets The World's Oldest Profession
Lyon is the hometown of France's new Women’s Rights Minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who wants new measures to stamp out prostitution. With French sex workers demonstrating in the streets, Le Monde looks at how prostitution has evolved in Lyon.
LYON - The streetwalkers of Lyon are furious. Abolishing prostitution? They are outraged by the very idea, as laid out on June 24 by the Women's Rights Minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who is also a leading politician in Lyon in charge of youth and community activities.
"The first thing that always comes to her mind is to beat us whores up," says Karen, a 46-year-old spokesperson for local prostitutes. "We are going to defend ourselves, we're not going to go away with one sweep of a broom."
For prostitutes, abolitionism is a new way of banishing them even farther away, of scrubbing them out of the picture, all under a pretext of moralism. Vallaud-Belkacem wants France to begin to punish the clients of prostitutes, as is already done in Sweden, Norway and Iceland. The prostitutes instead want to see the recognition of their work as a legitimate occupation with regulated practices. Over the next two days, prostitutes and associations are will be marching for their rights in the streets in Lyon, Toulouse, Marseille and Paris .
Borislava, a 27-year-old Bulgarian, thinks that the minister "is saying this to win over votes, but guys won't be OK with it."
Karen discovered dark back-alleys when she was 20. In the 1990s, she worked at Tina's, a popular hostess bar in the posh 6th district. She left the sidewalk for a short stint as a secretary before coming back to "this real job." She drove her van and parked behind Perrache train station, where prostitution was concentrated, in the abandoned grounds of southern Lyon.
This is where the left-wing municipality fought against prostitution for 10 years, by means of parking bans for "equipped vehicles." Behind this mundane legal justification, the goal really was to push prostitutes away from a sector destined for a key urban development project. In 2003, then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy's law on passive soliciting strengthened the crackdown, as police raids multiplied and the local prefect made it a major priority: "Only the army didn't intervene!" quips Karen.
As a result, the prostitutes moved from Confluent to Gerland, in an industrial sector that stretches between the beltway and the railway.
Jean-Louis Tourraine, the 66-year-old deputy to mayor Gérard Collomb, is worried about this debate. He is in charge of security and he knows too well that controlling prostitution in a metropolis is an "extremely difficult" question, packed with paradoxes and false solutions. "No absolute prohibition nor excessive tolerance: we aim for a balance," says Touraine.
Part of the policy is to assuage the riverside residents, who are shocked by the vans and scantily clad women at the foot of apartment buildings and schools.
"Hardline abolition is doomed to fail," says Tourraine, who advocates a subtle mix of "deterrence and pedagogy" by calling for a "general assembly" that would place prostitution in the center of national public debate. Even though it is pushing prostitution away from public spaces, the municipality gives 30,000 euros in subsidies to Cabiria, an association that assists prostitutes - subsidies that now minister Vallaud-Belkacem voted for.
Abolition: ideal or impossible?
"Prostitution has always existed, no one wants to see it because society is hypocritical," says Evelyne in her van in Gerland. She is 61 and carries all the memories of prostitution in Lyon. In 1975, she was part of a group of prostitutes who occupied the Saint-Nizier church during a historic 10-day protest.
They were asking for social recognition, for a status, during the heyday of the women's liberation movement. Evelyne keeps fond memories of those times: "We all rebelled, everybody supported us. Today, people glare at us." She doesn't understand why feminists, who supported them yesterday, are now against them.
The Women's Rights Minister justifies her choice: "I didn't set out to convince those who chose prostitution, I'm thinking of the much larger group of those who are victims of violence," says Vallaud-Belkacem, who was in Lyon on June 29. The minister chimes out her policy points: she mentions "80% of victims of pimping," considers a "consensus conference," similar to those on health ethics. But it is out of the question to take a step back: the abolitionist position is "an ideal whose ways and means are to explore, but not to challenge."
Even associations that help prostitutes are fiercely debating the topic. "Abolition is part of our human ideals, of principles that help society rely on ethical markers," explains Daniel Mellier, a delegate from the abolitionist Nest Movement.
Laura Garby, the Cabiria spokeswoman, is not convinced: "A law that would meddle with sexual relations between consenting adults is very worrying, it's a step back for the left, which had abolished the law punishing homosexuality."
Read more from Le Monde in French.
Photo - sammydavisdog