The European rights court said Thursday that it would hear an appeal by sex workers against a French anti-prostitution law which they say has shattered their livelihoods and driven them underground.
Sex workers technically operate legally in France, but the country in 2016 moved against their clients by outlawing the purchase of sexual acts in the hope of curbing the sex trade.
Arguing that their livelihood is unjustly threatened by the law, 260 sex workers backed by several groups filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2019 after exhausting all legal recourse in France.
Sex workers and their associations regularly protest against the law with action days and street marches.
The Strasbourg-based court said it agreed to rule on the matter after hearing several statements from sex workers — French and foreign — about how precarious their lives had become since clients stayed away because of fear of the law.
“According to the claimants who legally work as prostitutes, the criminalisation of prostitution clients has pushed prostitutes into clandestinity and isolation, has exposed them to a heightened risk to their physical integrity and their lives, and impacts their freedom to decide on how to lead their private lives,” the court said in a statement.
“They condemn the criminalisation of the purchase of sexual acts which targets even consenting adults,” it said.
The sex workers say the French law contravenes several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including on the protection of life and against inhumane treatment.
“We hope that the court’s verdict will recognise the law’s destructive impact on our lives, our health and our safety,” said Anais de Lenclos, spokeswoman for the sex workers association STRASS.
The court’s agreement to hear the case is in itself a victory, as it usually throws out more than 90 percent of all applications.
“The court has recognised that this is an important case that deserves a debate, and that is already a preliminary success,” Sarah-Marie Maffesoli, of the Medecins du Monde humanitarian NGO, told reporters.
The 2016 French law aimed to curb prostitution by penalising clients rather than sex workers, who are categorised as victims of the sex trade in need of protection.
Clients risk a fine of 1,500 euros ($1,600) when caught, rising to up to 3,750 euros for repeat offenders with a possible obligation to attend sensitivity training.
The court will make its ruling in the coming months.