Why French Men Are Upset About Being Deprived of Prostitutes

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A little know aspect of French culture, amidst all of this love of the good life and pleasure, is a tendency to scold. Not like S&M-y sexy scolding, but disparaging scolding. American parents with children in the French school system are the first to notice and deplore it (the former Paris correspondent of Time magazine, Peter Gumbel, even wrote a whole book about the scolding of poor schoolchildren).

But for the French it is second nature, they like the principle of a little admonishment. Which is why it’s so interesting that the latest people to object to this inherently French scolding are actually French men. Who are irate about being scolded…for seeing prostitutes.

At first impression, this kind of “scolding” might seem relatively legit: when are men actually encouraged to go see prostitutes? But the facts are a little more complex. A big debate has arisen in France in recent weeks surrounding the proposal of a new law, to be debated in parliament today, that would penalize the clients of prostitutes. In other words, penalize men for paying to have sex with women.

Prostitution in France is not illegal. And a law passed a few years ago that made the act of soliciting illegal is most likely about to be repealed. The idea is to sanction not the prostitutes, but their clients: to fine men 1500 Euros if they are caught paying for sex (and twice that if they are caught again). There is also some discussion about other sanctions, like mandatory sensitivity training on the abusive nature of prostitution.

So what exactly is the law targeting, if it isn’t looking to make prostitution itself illegal? This particular measure is a good illustration of the age-old debate about the age-old profession in France (and lots of other places). On the one hand, the prohibitionists, people who support criminalizing clients and prostitutes, and essentially prohibiting the practice of prostitution, not unlike the way prohibition in the US sought to suppress the use of alcohol. On the other hand, the abolitionists, those who support criminalizing the clients and not the prostitutes, whom they consider victimized enough already, with the idea that if no one is buying—if there’s no demand—then prostitution will disappear.

The celebrity petition: Against Anti-Prostituion Laws, For Freedom.

The celebrity petition: Against Anti-Prostituion Laws, For Freedom.

But the idea of targeting clients has got quite a few men (and some women on behalf of men) quite angry. These men are indignant because they think they’re being gratuitously scolded for simply enjoying the freedom of having whatever kind of consensual sex—paid or unpaid, with their partners or with prostitutes—they want. They see this measure as demonizing all male sexuality. A number of male celebrities and high-profile men in media signed a petition denouncing the proposed law, claiming that it turns men into “sex-starved perverts and psychopaths,” and that it’s a campaign of “repression disguised as a feminist cause.” They say that penalizing the male desire to possibly pay for sex implies—scoldingly!—that male sexuality is brutish and essentially uncontrollable unless penalized by a fine.

The petition’s jaunty-slash-belligerent tone caused some controversy, but then a highly-respected French feminist and intellectual, Elisabeth Badinter, known for her often singular positions on feminist issues, quite spectacularly flew to the defense of these men who feel unfairly admonished. In an interview with the newspaper Le Monde, she said the proposed law is “a declaration of hate against male sexuality,” and that government has no business “legislating on the sexual activity of individuals.” She too thinks the measure amounts to arbitrary scolding and disparagement.

Which, ironically, is just so terribly French to begin with. And in fact, in some ways, this whole affair does feel like a bunch of schoolboys bristling at being unfairly chided. The men think they’re being preemptively punished for something they’re not guilty of, being deprived of fun they’re perfectly entitled to have. As those who signed the petition said, “Whether we actually do occasionally pay for carnal relations or not, we would never under any circumstances do anything without the consent of our partners.” They’re free, prostitutes are free, and everyone should be free to consent to the kind of sex they want.

"The Procuress", by Dutch painter Dirck van Baburen. The freedom to dispose of one's body in the 17th century.

“The Procuress”, by Dutch painter Dirck van Baburen. The freedom to dispose of one’s body in the 17th century.

Except that it’s completely unrealistic to think that, but for a very small minority of women, there is anything truly free about prostitutes choosing to have sex with clients. I understand the principle of personal liberty underlying the men’s petition and Badinter’s objections. And in principle, they’re right: the state has no business, really, telling men what kind of sex they should or shouldn’t have. But the idea that prostitutes are just as free in their consent as male clients is ridiculous.

In France, it’s estimated that up to 90% of prostitutes are foreigners, for the most part caught up in mafia-controlled networks and often victims of human trafficking. Prostitution isn’t exactly a choice for them. These women aren’t actually free to dispose of their bodies as they wish—this freedom being one of Badinter’s arguments for objecting to this kind of legislation—in the first place.

Because even if they were free of the pimps who control them, and free of the economic circumstances that probably drove them to this kind of lifestyle, they would never be free from scrutiny and judgment. The notion that prostitutes and clients are entering into a freely consensual compact is an illusion; there is an absolute asymmetry of power. Everyone may be “free” and “consenting” in theory, but ultimately the women the johns pay to screw will only ever be whores, in their eyes and in everybody else’s. That’s not freedom.

One view of the proposed law.

One view of the proposed law.

I think that there are other, better, reasons to object to this measure. Like the possibility that it will actually make prostitutes worse off by pushing prostitution out of sight, away from city centers, and making the women even more marginalized and vulnerable (a position taken by another more moderately worded celebrity petition that has circulated). But if men here are feeling unduly scolded right now, I actually think that this is one instance where it’s not just the French being arbitrarily disparaging. It’s not a bunch of schoolmarmish French feminists rapping on knuckles because they can.

It’s about a few lawmakers trying to unveil a nasty reality that even the loftiest French principles of sexual liberty can’t hide.

Why French Media Is So Afraid of Innovation

Afraid of innovation?

Afraid of innovation?

I don’t think it’s unfair to say, with all the affection I have for France and the French way of doing things, that there is often a 10-year lag between the US and France. This can sound like a long time, and it is. But the Atlantic Ocean is vast, I suppose. I mentioned this a few weeks ago, for example, in the context of hipsters, a species spotted for the first time in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, around 1999 or so and still popping up in Belleville in Paris today. Other things with some delay: customer service, e-commerce, day spas…oh and the internet and media.

But when it comes to media, the past month here in Paris has been uncharacteristically disruptive in the most positive and innovation-driven sense of the term, with not one, but four new digital media start-ups being announced. None, strangely (but for reasons about which I will speculate below) seems to have created much buzz…even though one of the launches was Buzzfeed France.

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Recognize this? Cat LOL’s evidently don’t get lost in translation.

Perhaps it’s not a fair comparison between U.S. and French media, just by virtue of the sheer size of the (totally unregulated) American market: hundreds of cable television channels, thousands of newspapers, dozens of internet-only news websites with traffic that surpasses the websites of traditional media, plus bloggers, aggregators, curated crowd-sourced content, hugely popular amateur content, mobile-only content. It is an extraordinarily vibrant, highly-innovative, frenetically disruptive media market. There are new ideas (and new jobs) being created all the time in the media industry in the U.S. They can also risk going away just as fast as they came, too.

France…is different. There is some of the same stuff, but much less of it; and then some of the new stuff just hasn’t made it here yet. Arguably, when it comes to the development of new internet-only media (really not much), to the transformation of traditional media and their adaptation to digital platforms and mobile (slow), to the creation of new mobile-only media (none yet really), you could say that France is not very efficient.

This is not actually the attitude in France.

This is not actually the attitude in France.

I often wonder what they’re waiting for, and I speculate that it has something to do with the inefficiencies of a media market dominated by public media behemoths like France Télévisions and Radio France, for whom implementing change is a hugely complex, slow-moving, procedural enterprise. France is actually (improbably) ranked among the most innovative countries in the world when it comes to industry and research (only Japan and the U.S. are ahead of it). Why not when it comes to media?

I also speculate that it has something to do with a layer of upper management in newsrooms and networks that is, for the most part, a club of male baby-boomers. This is a delicate speculation to make and so I proceed with caution, as 50- and 60-something male management is not necessarily a barrier to change, it’s just that youth and diversity tend to encourage innovation and that the only diversity you’ll find at the head of French newsrooms is the occasional woman.

A new tablet-only weekend edition of the news media Rue 89.

A new tablet-only weekend edition of the news media Rue 89.

But innovation is coming, slowly, as these past few weeks demonstrate. After Buzzfeed France, the French version of the famous American listicle site earlier this month, yesterday came the announcement of Rue 89 Weekend, a tablet-only weekend edition of one of France’s most successful internet-only news sites, rue89.com. Last week, the news site L’important was launched, introducing a whole new genre of media to the French landscape: a website produced in partnership with Mediapart.fr (France’s other most popular internet-only news site) that curates and aggregates the most relevant news tweets sourced, the founder says, from a network of volunteer twitterers all over the world.

And lastly, Canal Plus, the biggest paying channel in France (essentially the French HBO in terms of its importance in the French media landscape), announced the creation of 20 new YouTube channels in partnership with the video-sharing platform where they’ll feature all of their catch-up TV programming, and—this is the more interesting announcement—the creation of Canal Factory, a new brand dedicated to finding and producing talent and content exclusively for the web.

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It’s all a nice little spike of innovation catch-up. But none of these launches are actual start-ups, really: they’re all new projects related to pre-existing media (Rue 89, Mediapart, Canal Plus), or just the local iteration of…an American media (Buzzfeed). I’m not diminishing the merit of these projects, all of which I actually find really interesting and pretty ambitious (especially for France!), but nor is the French media really paying much attention either. If you Google the news about Canal Factory, there are practically more top-ranked entries in English than in French.

Maybe it’s a good thing that these new media launches don’t create the same kind of media scrutiny that most launches get in US media, with a whole industry parsing the project—its funding, its content, its founders, its revenue streams—before the first consumer has even clicked. Or maybe the traditional French media is just playing ostrich.

In any case, I will also speculate that the media industry can’t afford to take ten years to catch up this time. They might want to take their heads out of the sand.

The French Are Pissed and Wearing Hip Red Caps


The Red Cap protesters, or “bonnets rouges,” are calling for more protests in Brittany.

The French are pissed. It’s a general mood of disgruntlement and discouragement, related mostly to François Hollande’s (now infamous) tax policies. Small business owners, big business owners, artisans, the self-employed, farmers, horse riders and stable owners (their value added tax has gone up from 5,5% to 19,6%) are all pissed and many have actually taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest. Hollande has become France’s most unpopular president on record—currently at a 15% approval rating—and there are rumblings of a cabinet reshuffle, even a government dissolution and new elections. In brief, the mood is menacing. But in the classic French tradition of contradiction, the symbol of this black cloud hanging over French spirits is an exceedingly perky red cap.

Les bonnets rouges, or “The Red Caps” is the name of the biggest and loudest protest movement in France right now. It has brought nearly 30,000 people into the streets of Brittany to protest an “environmental tax” on heavyweight transport trucks and to call for jobs in this region hard-hit by bankruptcies and downsizing.

In response, the Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, temporarily suspended the ecotax measure to allow for “discussions” and announced a “new deal for Brittany’s future.” The Red Caps say it’s not enough and have called for roadblocks on highways this weekend and an even bigger demonstration on November 30th (they’ve also vandalized a toll and dozens of cameras used to track the heavy trucks for taxing, causing about €6 million of damage).


The classic French wool knit cap by Armor Lux, made in Brittany.

The protestors in Brittany are actually an amalgam of angry people, angry about lots of different things: farmers hit by the ecotax, former employees of many industrial food plants located in the region that have been shut down in the past year, food-processing factory owners upset about the end of European export subsidies for agricultural products and, even, allegedly, a few Breton autonomists (there is a long tradition of secessionism in this chilly north-western coastal region famous for its butter, its sailors and its mysticism). What they all have in common—aside from being pissed—are their red knit Armor Lux caps.

You could be forgiven for finding the look kind of ironically stylish, evocative of a hipster lumberjack style that wouldn’t be out of place in Williamsburg or Nolita in New York. The very same Armor Lux caps are sold (mostly in navy-blue) in trendy boutiques in Brooklyn and on the Lower East Side. What the hipsters don’t know is that Armor Lux is a 75-year-old Breton company, famous for its rugged sailing apparel—its thick striped cotton shirts and warm wool caps—and at the forefront of the protectionist Made-in-France campaign that I wrote about a few weeks ago.


Arguably a lumberjack hipster.

Nor do the Brooklyn hipsters know that Brittany actually has a history of protesting unjust taxes—and of wearing red caps while doing it. In the late 17th century, under the reign of Louis XIV, the red cap was part of traditional peasant dress in the same part of Brittany where the protests are taking place today. In 1675, the King imposed a new stamp tax to help finance France’s war against Holland. The Breton peasants rose up in protest, wearing their red caps, and the movement came to be known as the revolt of the red caps.

Later on, there were the famous red “Phrygian caps” of the Jacobins during the French Revolution (still worn today by the diverse buxom incarnations of Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic). And more recently, in the 1970s, Breton autonomists used the red cap as the symbol of the emancipation of the Breton people from the arbitrary centralized power of Paris.


Marianne by Eugène Delacroix, symbol of the French republic wearing a red Phrygian cap.

Another more contemporary incarnation of Marianne.

Another more contemporary incarnation of Marianne.

The sentiments of today’s pissed-off protestors are similar—get your tax off my trucks—and they’ve seized the same red cap as a symbol of their own anger. It probably helped that the Armor Lux company, undoubtedly defending the interests of Made-in-Brittany products, actually donated about a thousand red caps when the protests began in early October. More recently they’ve sold more caps to the organization coordinating the protests for just 4€ a cap (in Brooklyn they cost $44).

This turned into a bit of a PR snafu last week when it was discovered that the most recent batch of red knit caps were actually…made in Scotland. Armor Lux says it didn’t have the production capacity in Brittany to produce thousands more caps rapidly enough, and so they resorted to a “partner” in Scotland. The leader of the Breton protests tried smoothing over things with a, “Brittany, Scotland, Wales—it’s all a bit the same country.”

What the protestors aren’t smoothing over is their discontent with the Hollande government. Which isn’t limited just to the tax hikes and unemployment. Thousands of school teachers and parents have also taken to the streets in recent months to protest a major reform to the school schedule, as did hundreds of midwives in recent weeks to demand a raise and a new official status. There was last week’s downgrade by Standard and Poor’s of France’s credit rating that reinforced the disgruntlement of the growing number of disbelievers in Hollande’s ability to actually come to grips with and solve France’s economic problems.


Jacques Cousteau, famous French sailor, also sported the red cap look. More gallic sailor chic than protest chic.

The mood is dark. The caps are red. And by today’s globalized standards of downtown style, really hip—and even hipper now that the caps are all about gallic protest chic. It’s a fantastic branding opportunity for Armor Lux.

For Hollande, it’s more of an opportunity to look back in history at France’s previous red-cap revolts…which unfortunately all got bloody.

Why the French Don’t Need a Raise

Is this how France's 1% live?  Unlikely!

Is this how France’s 1% live?

Much gets made–and this blog makes much of–the quality of life in France. I’m referring in part to the food-wine-beauty thing, but mostly I’m talking about all those government-subsidized freebies that are, well, pretty much life-changing. High-quality healthcare that doesn’t cost consumers a dime, generous amounts of paid vacation, free or incredibly affordable childcare as of the age of…birth, among the world’s most generous unemployment benefits, tons of subsidies for the arts, for housing, for large families, for first-time entrepreneurs, for journalists. If you think a discount, exemption or aid for something might exist, it usually does. But the flip side of all these valuable government bennies is that, on average, the French earn…way less than Americans.

The national average wage for 2012 in the United States is $44,322. In France, it is $33,228—that’s 25% less. That’s one quarter less money annually. The difference in salaries feels particularly sharp when you live in Paris, where the cost of living doesn’t feel all that different from New York. In fact, in my own experience, most of those consumer products you can’t really do without buying, like cereal, shampoo and clothes, cost more, and there is no Walmart-style discount industry in France. (The numbers confirm this, consumer and grocery prices are higher in Paris, but rent is somewhat less than NY).

But even more striking is when you look at the highest earners in France. Or rather what it takes to earn a place among the highest salaries: not much, relative to American incomes. With a salary of $53,040 in France you’re already admitted into the club of the 10% highest salaries in the country. And once you break 100K, at $121,930, you’re among the top 1% of salaries in France! This is the average salary of a medium-level American executive (like a marketing manager or an IT manager). In the U.S., in 2012, the top 1% of incomes were those above $394,000.  The American 1% club earns more than three times the salaries of their French counterparts.

The promise of America.

The promise of America.

But in the U.S., in 2012, something else happened too. The gap between the top 1% earner and the rest of the country grew to its widest level in history. The top 1% of Americans earned one-fifth of all income in the United States—breaking the previous record set in 1928 (the year before the historic stock market crash). That means that if the highest paid Americans are earning much more than their French counterparts, the lowest paid are actually earning much less.

The minimum wage in New York State is $7.25 an hour. In France, the federal minimum wage is $12.26 an hour. That’s nearly half as much for the minimum wage worker in the US—where there is no such thing as free government anything except for the most direly poor. Workers in seven of the 10 largest occupations in the U.S. typically earn less than $30,000 a year—well below the national average salary of $44,322. And yet that includes most Americans.

If you don’t get the opportunity in France to earn as much as you do in the U.S.—indeed, you’re statistically guaranteed pretty much to earn less—this is not, by French standards, a bad thing. Certainly I would prefer to have the same revenue opportunities in Paris that I would in New York, but somehow it seems to work out. The French measure what makes life worth living in a different way than Americans. The good life is more nuanced than being part of the 1% or even 10% club.

But philosophy of life aside, if France’s 1% club seems like the little league compared to the U.S., here’s the most significant reason why it’s perhaps not so bad to be in the minor league: because at least the other 99% are still in the game. There is no special status needed to get into the government freebies club in France. French minimum wage earners (aside from earning more than US minimum wage workers) are entitled to the same quality-of-life benefits as France’s one percent.

Scaling the wage gap.

Scaling the wage gap. (Credit: from the “Social Climbing Series” by Chris Mason).

The other 99% in the U.S. aren’t really entitled to much except the right to try to grapple and leap their way over the widening wage gap and up the totem pole of financial success that is so integral to the idea of the U.S.A. Good luck to all those (growing number of) Americans making less than the average national salary.

And here’s hoping that some of those $130,000-a-year IT managers get the technical kinks worked out in the Obamacare websites. At least, then, 100% of Americans might be entitled to healthcare.