Frightening stories of prostitutes in Paris
France is waiting for a new law that will punish the traffickers and clients and decriminalise the prostituted women.
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Well-wishers had left three roses, some pebbles and two unused Metro tickets besides the plain white tombstones that marked the graves of Simone de Beauvoir and her life-long companion Jean-Paul Sartre, when I visited the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris in the summer of 2013. I wondered why. Perhaps, they felt that the two might like to return to Cafe de Flore to drink coffee, smoke Gaulioses, discuss friends and lovers, and ponder, from a new perspective, the difference between being and nothingness.
I was in Paris to meet the French-Moroccan socialist politician, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, minister of women's affairs, and to speak at the French national assembly in support of the passage of a law that would decriminalise prostituted women and punish clients and traffickers.
Second in a family of seven children, Najat Belkacem was born in the Morocco countryside and had migrated at age five to Amiens in France to join her father, a building worker. She joined the Socialist Party in 2002 and led actions to strengthen local democracy, fight against discrimination, promote citizen rights, and access to employment and housing.
She is now the first French woman to be appointed minister of education, higher education, and research. She describes herself as a "non-practising Muslim".
After our meeting in Paris, Belkacem visited India the same year and met with sex-trafficking survivors in my NGO, Apne Aap Women Worldwide. She sat in a circle cross-legged with the women and their daughters and talked and danced with them.
She represents the best of what is possible in France.
Last summer, I met 18 undocumented female workers who were in the middle of an already three-month old sit-in strike at a beauty parlour in Paris' north-eastern Château d'Eau neighbourhood.
Supported by the French CGT union (General Confederation of Labour), these women have occupied the hair and nail salon refusing to service customers till their Nigerian employers give them fair wages and treat them justly. The salon owners filed a legal request to have them forcibly evicted.
Luckily, a Paris judge has denied the eviction request.
The stories the undocumented workers recount about their journeys to France - and their arrival at the salon are as diverse as they are frightening. Daniel and his wife said they left their hometown of Oko, in south-eastern Nigeria, for Libya, where they boarded a raft bound for Italy. They were rescued from their sinking vessel by the Italian police. Traffickers in Sicily told them a ticket to Paris was 50,000 euros. They could cover the sum through drug trafficking and prostitution.
Months later, jobless and with a newborn baby in Paris, Daniel leapt at the chance to work at the salon. His 15-hour-per-day job consisted of mixing and preparing hair dyes, in a windowless room in the salon's basement. "I got severe headaches and had trouble sleeping".
Precious, a 29-year-old Nigerian mother of four, said she was forced to pay back the people who brought her to Paris by prostituting herself. She was homeless for months with her children. A job in Château d'Eau allowed her to feed her children on a daily basis. She did not ask any questions. When asked what they hoped for from their future, replies were short: get back to work, but legally.
Château d'Eau is littered with salons controlled by Nigerian networks. Trafficking is rampant. Yet France is waiting for a new law that will punish the traffickers and clients and decriminalise the prostituted women.
Later that evening I met Rosen Hicher, a former prostituted woman who had walked 800km (500mi) across France to demand that the government make good on its promise to penalise clients. She was surrounded by a dozen ex-prostitutes supporting her. She told me that she had made a symbolic stop at Rue du Colisee - an upmarket street where she was first prostituted - before making her way to the senate to call on lawmakers "to wake up and finally act." Buying sex "is not a right, no one has the right to buy a woman or sell her," she said.
Walking back to my hotel I passed the Pantheon - a shrine dedicated by the Revolutionary Assembly in 1790 to France's great and good. The crypt contains the remains of the guiding light of the French Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) whose The Social Contract changed the relationship of the state with the individual. A statue of Rousseau stands, incongruously, in the car park outside.
I smiled as I thought Rousseau, Sartre, and Beauvoir, would have been proud of the new France - that a migrant worker's daughter could become a minister, that a judge would rule in favour of 18 undocumented workers to strike and a prostituted woman could march the streets to demand a law that punished perpetrators rather than victims. France's greatness was in how the great and the mundane, the big and the small, were all part of its intellectual and practical struggle for freedom and equality. Our world was lucky that we had Paris in it.
My heart bled when I heard of the horrible attacks in Paris.
If Paris is destroyed, humanity will lose its noblest attempts at socialism, existentialism and humanism.
It is the city where Beauvoir imagined that the free woman - " who can find liberty in her existence as a woman, and who can express that liberty in works and in art was just being born".