FRENCH lawmakers are debating a bill that would punish those who use prostitutes and has sparked fierce debate in a country famed for its liberal attitudes to sex.
Prostitution itself is allowed in France, but soliciting, pimping, and the sale of sex by minors are prohibited.
The government says the bill is aimed at preventing violence against women and protecting the large majority of prostitutes who are victims of trafficking gangs.
But critics warn that it would force sex workers further underground and put them in more danger, and some argue that everyone should be allowed to use their own body as they see fit.
Kicking off the debate, Maud Olivier, one of the lawmakers spearheading the bill, blasted the "hypocrisy" of critics.
"One prostitute declares herself free and the slavery of others becomes respectable and acceptable?" she asked parliament.
"How can you find glamorous the 10 to 15 penetrations a day endured by prostitutes for economic reasons with dramatic consequences on their health?"
Activists and sex workers have staged rallies denouncing the proposed law in several cities in France, and those for and against the bill were due to protest Friday near France's lower house National Assembly.
Lawmakers are likely to focus on the most controversial clause in the bill, which would punish clients with a fine of 1500 euros ($2237) for a first offence and more than double that for repeat offenders.
There are an estimated 20,000-plus sex workers in France, many of whom come from Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria and Romania; as well as African nations like Nigeria and Cameroon, and China and South America.
According to the interior ministry, foreign prostitutes make up 80 to 90 per cent of all sex workers in France, a vast majority of whom are victims of trafficking rings.
The bill takes inspiration from Sweden where a similar law punishing clients has reduced street prostitution by half over the past decade.
It also seeks to cancel the offence of "passive soliciting", effectively shifting the focus away from sex workers.
Ms Olivier said the bill was aimed at "dissuading clients from feeding the (prostitution) rings with their money and to make it clear that a sexual act must not be bought".
The bill also puts forward measures to help prostitutes who want to quit, including foreigners who would be given a six-month, renewable residence permit.
But critics insist that shifting the focus on clients will only force prostitutes to work even more covertly, and a majority of lawmakers from the main opposition UMP party are expected to abstain.
The Greens, meanwhile, are planning to vote against the bill, which they believe it does not make enough of a distinction between victims of prostitution rings and independent sex workers who fear their revenues will fall.
Many of these have taken to the streets in recent days, denouncing a bill that is already scaring clients away.
"I've lost 80 per cent of my turnover," said Priscilia, a 40-something sex worker in Paris.
"This law is... killing me," she said, pointing out that one of her clients had told her he now goes to the more discreet Chinese massage parlours.
Some 26 lawmakers from different parties have signed a petition against punishing clients, describing the bill as "a moralistic text."
Around 60 people, including celebrities such as actress Catherine Deneuve and singer Charles Aznavour, also released an open letter earlier this month opposing the bill.
Another more contentious letter released last month, entitled "Don't touch my whore!", said: "When parliament gets involved in adopting rules on sexuality, everyone's freedom is threatened."
Lawmakers in the National Assembly are due to vote on the bill on Wednesday, and if approved, it will move to the upper house Senate.
Europe is also in the midst of a wider debate over prostitution, which is legal in several countries on the continent.
A decade after Germany legalised prostitution, dozens of politicians, actors and journalists this month signed an appeal to abolish sex work, saying the country had been turned into a "paradise for pimps."