France’ lower house of parliament has passed a bill that will decriminalise prostitutes and fine their customers in an attempt to fight human trafficking networks.
The proposed law would introduce $2,000 fines for customers and decriminalise an estimated 20,000 plus prostitutes in the country.
The bill was passed on Wednesday by a vote of 268-138 and will now go to the upper house senate where it is expected to face more opposition.
Protesters, including prostitutes in masks, have demonstrated in front of the parliament building in recent weeks.
President Francois Hollande’s Socialist government strongly backs the bill.
It would scrap a 2003 law that bans soliciting on the streets, and would make it easier for foreign prostitutes to remain in France legally if they enter a programme to get out of prostitution.
The bill was inspired by similar legislation in Sweden which penalises prostitutes’ clients with the aim of eliminating the world’s oldest profession.
It was sponsored by women’s rights minister Najat Vallaud-Blekacem, who hailed Wednesday’s vote as “the end of a long road strewn with pitfalls”.
Campaigners for the abolition of prostitution welcomed Wednesday’s outcome as a “historic advance.”
“France has placed itself at the side of those who prostitute themselves, against those who take advantage of their vulnerability,” campaign group the Mouvement du Nid said in a statement.
Critics, who include some of France’ most prominent celebrities, say the legislation will simply push prostitution further underground and make the women who earn their living from it more vulnerable to abuse.
Prostitution is legal in France but soliciting, pimping and the sale of sex by minors is prohibited.
A final vote on the bill could still be several months away.