Paris Police Are Cracking Down on Vulnerable Communities Ahead of the Olympics

Many of the city’s sex workers worry that the pressure will continue if the far right comes to power

Paris Police Are Cracking Down on Vulnerable Communities Ahead of the Olympics
The logo for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris is displayed near the Eiffel Tower. (Chesnot/Getty Images)

It was past 10 p.m. in early June when Ade and Liza, two minimally clad young sex workers from Nigeria, were chased down by French police officers in the Bois de Vincennes, Paris’ largest park, located on the eastern edge of the city. The two women, whose names have been changed to protect their identities, were waiting outdoors in their underwear for potential clients and had no time to rush back to their van. They sprinted in the opposite direction, braving the darkness of the night, hoping to escape what have now become frequent police raids on the woods, which are infamous for sex work.

“They sometimes come with dogs,” Ade says. “They come here and harass the ladies, they call us ‘salopes’ [a French word for ‘sluts’]. One of them told my friend he was going to fuck her.”

The sex workers in Vincennes are mostly Nigerians, the majority of whom are victims of sex trafficking and considered by French authorities as women in need of protection. They work and often live in vans and trucks that they rent or own, a common practice among sex workers in Paris’ woods. In recent months, and despite their precarity, they have been subjected to regular police raids, allegedly in an attempt to remove them ahead of the Olympic Games, according to local organizations.

“If they see that someone is in the truck, they start violently shaking it,” Ade adds, referring to the police. “We often stay naked so if we have to run, they can’t spot us when they put the lights on, as we are Black.”

Sex work is not illegal in France. In 2016, the country replicated what is known as the Nordic model for sex work, decriminalizing public solicitation of sexual services and punishing only the client who pays for sex. In the eyes of the law, the women are all victims and cannot be punished. But the majority of Paris’ sex workers are illegal migrants without proper documentation or a residency permit. Various organizations working with sex workers on the ground told New Lines that documentation control has increased in the first six months of 2024, with many incidents being reported by sex workers in Vincennes and across the city. These controls are being used to go after the women because the police cannot criminalize them as sex workers, only as undocumented foreigners.

The women are detained and taken to police stations, where they can be held for up to 48 hours. They are often delivered a decision of deportation known as an OQTF, an Obligation to Leave French Territory, but are released from custody.

Liza says she was detained a few weeks ago, taken in her underwear for questioning at the police station and then told to leave the country and return to Nigeria despite the fact that she is a victim of sex trafficking. So far, 37 such deportation decisions have been given to women working in the woods of Vincennes, according to Aurelia Huot from the Paris Solidarity Bar, which offers free legal services to migrants and vulnerable communities, including sex workers, in Paris. Most of the women are eventually released and go into hiding for a while before resuming work, as the execution of the order is rarely implemented.

According to Huot, the raids are part of “a social cleansing” ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics, which the city is hosting starting July 26. The woods of Vincennes, for instance, will host the cycling competition of the Games. But it is not just venues directly linked to the Games that are being affected — authorities are also evacuating irregular immigrants, homeless people and sex workers from the entire Parisian territory.

Earlier this year, 17 organizations issued a report accusing the authorities of “forcefully” evacuating vulnerable communities across the city ahead of the Summer Games, including sex workers. They mentioned “increased repression” by authorities, warning of detrimental consequences for the safety and well-being of the women.

Huot says that in the past, the police were cooperative and officers offered the women protection. Nongovernmental organizations had direct channels of communication with the authorities to assist and support sex workers. “During one of the inspections that I witnessed, I asked an officer why the policy had changed, and he told me, ‘I can’t put that on record, but it’s in the context of organizing the Olympics. They need to clean up the woods.’”

The Paris police told New Lines that they conducted documentation checks on 203 sex workers in the Vincennes woods up to April 2024. But they did not respond to accusations of verbal and physical assault or to inquiries about raids in other sex work locations across town. The police claimed the raids were part of efforts to “dismantle pimping networks” and “combat sex trafficking.” They added that “the police remain fully mobilized as the Olympic Games approach and are carrying out important work with its various partners in order to develop measures to prevent and combat the phenomenon of prostitution of minors.”

But not all sex workers in Paris are minors or victims. For many, sex work is a choice and a way to make ends meet. Only 5% to 6% of the sex worker community in Paris are trafficking victims, according to Elisa Koubi, a national coordinator at STRASS, a trade union for sex workers in France. Koubi says the victimhood narrative is one “promulgated by the 2016 law and a country whose creed is to abolish prostitution.” She says the law was a “double punishment” and a “reversal of the balance of power.” Clients, for fear of being penalized, no longer come, and if they do, they negotiate on prices, wearing condoms and other practices. The women have lost business and are no longer in a position of power. Furthermore, the French law against pimping, which dates back to 2003, penalizes any person who assists, protects, employs or benefits financially from sex work. The penalty can be up to seven years in prison and fines of approximately $160,000. The law has impacted sex workers’ living conditions and their access to certain rights and services.

“A prostitute cannot use the money she earns without the person taking the money being accused of pimping. So, sex workers have a hard time finding decent housing, for example,” adds Koubi.

Now, with the increase in checks, sex workers are no longer reporting cases of client abuse to the police. Rapes go unreported, and the women go to work later than usual and hide deep in the woods where no one can see them. They show up less frequently at NGOs, which provide them with legal support, social and health services. They have become less visible and therefore more vulnerable.

In the neighborhood of Belleville, a crossroads between four Parisian districts, the crowd of sex workers is much older. Chinese migrants, many of them in their 50s and 60s, find customers on the streets during the day before taking them to their apartments. The police controls are now regular and unprecedented in Belleville as well. In the past three months, 36 deportation notices have been given to sex workers, with one woman expelled back to China.

“The government does not want to see women on the street, it does not want visible prostitution. So, the whole intention is to make prostitution invisible,” says Ting, a coordinator with Steel Roses, a community organization of Chinese sex workers in Paris.

Many in the Chinese sex worker community in Paris came to France some 10 to 25 years ago as economic migrants, hoping to earn a better income and support their families back home, according to Ting. But when they arrived, they lacked legal residency and didn’t speak the language, so they could not easily find a job. Sex work offers them an opportunity, says Ting. “Many women claim a certain freedom in sex work. Because they don’t have a boss, they can work whenever they want.”

Hua Hua, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is 50 and has been involved in sex work in Belleville since 2015. She has two children back in China to whom she sends about $650 a month. She says the police controls have limited her outings and affected her income. “They come in civilian clothes, so we cannot identify them easily. Sometimes we think they are clients,” she says.

Many of the women, including Hua, fear that the current crackdown won’t stop after the Olympics. Anti-immigration rhetoric has been on the rise in France amid a political shift toward the far right. The new and highly controversial immigration law passed by the Parliament earlier this year tightens immigration laws and eases deportation. Amnesty International France said it was “more detrimental than ever to the rights of people living in exile.” If the far right wins parliamentary elections in July, undocumented migrants will become even more vulnerable.

A few weeks ago, Hua was taken into custody for six hours and given a deportation notice. But her plan is to stay and finally legalize her status because the law allows her, under certain conditions, to apply for residency after 10 years in the country, regardless of her employment. That might change if the far-right National Rally party is in power. Hua is hoping she can be finally considered a legal resident of France and says that maybe then she can do something else with her life.

“I don’t take pleasure in sex work, but I do it to make money, just like a lot of people don’t like their jobs but do it anyways,” Hua says. “It helps me feed my children. I don’t feel like a victim. I chose to do this.”

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