PARIS — Racial profiling, arbitrary house arrests, detentions, and deportation threats—they’re all too common in France these days as part of the “state of emergency” declared to fight terrorists. But they’ve been familiar to France's sex workers for quite a while, which is why they have joined those fighting to try to stop an extension of what some people have called the French “Patriot Act,” only worse.
In January, thousands of Parisians braved heavy rain to rally against government efforts to alter the constitution in order to extend the state of emergency.
Initially implemented right after the coordinated terror attacks on Nov. 13, the state of emergency laws date back to 1955, during the Algerian war (when Algeria was still part of France) and significantly increase executive powers.
Authorities may search homes and place suspects under house arrest without a judicial warrant, for instance, and the government can set curfews and forbid large demonstrations.
In that mixed crowd of passionate demonstrators was Morgane Merteuil, who had joined the march on behalf of STRASS, France’s only sex-worker-led labor union. For Merteuil and other members of STRASS, the state of emergency is particularly troubling because sex workers have long since encountered the heavy-handed police tactics that the laws mandate.
"The state of emergency doesn't really change things for sex workers," Merteuil, 29, told The Daily Beast. "But it’s an extension of police practices that are already in effect for certain segments of the population, including sex workers.”
A petite brunette with a direct manner and a wide smile, Merteuil joined STRASS two years after it was established in 2009 and serves as its spokesperson. In addition to advocating for the rights and working conditions of the estimated 37,000 prostitutes in the country, the group seeks to remove the stigma commonly attached to sex work.
We are chatting in a busy café on Boulevard de Belleville, where, across the street, a row of Chinese sex workers in skin-tight pants and high-heeled boots stand against a building façade near the metro station.
Known as marcheuses (street walkers) in French, the women often hail from impoverished towns in northern China, where they had held jobs as industrial workers before the factories went bust. Speaking little French and typically unaware of their rights, the marcheuses are easy targets for exploitation and police harassment.
Although prostitution is technically legal in France, solicitation is outlawed, as are brothels. The laws were tightened in 2003 during Nicolas Sarkozy’s stint as interior minister, when “passive solicitation” was also banned. Under that legislation, police have the power to arrest suspected sex workers even without solid proof that solicitation is taking place. Sporting skimpy attire or merely being present in areas known for prostitution can get someone slapped with a two-month prison sentence and a €3,750 ($4,211) fine. Highly controversial, the passive-solicitation laws were scrapped in 2013, only to be reinstated two years later.
Merteuil said that as the once-scruffy Belleville neighborhood began to gentrify in recent years, police crackdowns against the marcheuses have intensified.
“They want a ‘clean’ neighborhood,” she explained with a matter-of-fact shrug. “Not a neighborhood with immigrant women walking the streets.”
Indeed, on Feb. 1 authorities reportedly dismantled a network of Chinese prostitutes operating in Belleville, placing seven women in temporary custody.
This singling out of migrant sex workers by the authorities is common, according to STRASS, which has documented instances of police harassment against Chinese prostitutes on its website. Theoretically, the concern is that these women are trafficked, but the way the harassment plays out on the street does little to impede the international networks involved in that multibillion-dollar business.
Accounts on the site range from verbal harassment to aggressive demands for identity papers to the destruction of the papers once a woman has handed them over. STRASS and other human-rights groups say that the current state of emergency subjects Muslims and other minorities to similar ethnic profiling.
“The state of emergency is applied in large part not just to people believed to be legitimately linked to terrorism, but it’s used against activists and against Muslims as a whole,” said Merteuil.
Last Wednesday Human Rights Watch published a release documenting the experiences of those targeted in police operations following the Nov. 13 attacks. According to the release, “the vast majority of those placed under house arrest or whose homes were searched are Muslims and persons of North African descent.”
More unsettling, are accounts of police forces raiding homes, restaurants, and places of worship with little or no evidence that the occupants are linked to terrorism or other criminal activities. Moreover, the operations appear to be yielding little in the way of catching would-be terrorists. For instance, while law enforcement officials have carried out more than 3,200 raids and placed between 350 and 400 people under house arrest, the Paris prosecutor’s office has opened only five terrorism-related investigations.
Amnesty International released a similarly damning report a day later, which criticizes the “disproportional impact” of the state of emergency laws and called on the state not to extend them.
However, the government insists that the laws are making the country safer.
“Yes, the state of emergency is effective, indispensable for the security of our fellow citizens,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls said at a parliamentary debate on Friday. “Networks have been disrupted. Numerous individuals have been identified and placed under surveillance.”
On Monday, the lower house of the French parliament voted in favor of the law.
For Merteuil, government laws in the name of public security are exactly what enable authorities to arbitrarily target sex workers, immigrants, and other vulnerable populations. Indeed, the 2003 prostitution laws ushered in by Sarkozy were a part of domestic security legislation.
“We’ve already seen deportations [of sex workers] following arrests for soliciting on the pretext that it threatens public security,” she said.
More perplexing still, said Merteuil, are statements made by deputies at recent government meetings linking sex workers to terrorist networks like the Islamic State and Boko Haram.
“It’s a call for national unity against prostitutes,” she exclaimed with an exasperated laugh. “Fighting against prostitution is also a way to combat terrorism!”
Merteuil said that STRASS will continue to mobilize, and that the group plans to participate in another rally in eastern Paris at the end of this month.
In the meantime, concern continues to mount among rights groups that the government’s push for public safety comes at too high a price.
“France has a responsibility to ensure public safety and try to prevent further attacks, but the police have used their new emergency powers in abusive, discriminatory, and unjustified ways,” said Izza Leghtas, Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This abuse has traumatized families and tarnished reputations, leaving targets feeling like second-class citizens.”
A feeling the country’s sex workers know all too well.