By Thierry Chiarello
PARIS (Reuters) - Hundreds of people including sex workers protested in Paris on Saturday against plans to make soliciting prostitution illegal, criticizing a minister's drive to eradicate the practice of paying for sex as counter-productive.
France's minister for women's rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, caused a stir in late June by saying she would seek to make prostitution disappear by punishing those who pay for sex, rather than the prostitutes themselves.
The Socialist politician was backed by prominent feminists and allies in government, but her remarks unleashed a hail of criticism from sex workers' unions, which argued that punishing clients would drive business underground, endangering prostitutes.
At Place Pigalle in the heart of Paris' red-light district, dozens of sex workers chanted pro-prostitution slogans through loudspeakers and waved signs that read "Penalised clients = murdered prostitutes" and "Sex work is work too".
"Before making public statements, she (Vallaud-Belkacem) needs to do her homework, to find out about the reality of prostitution," Morgane Mertreuil, head of the Strass sex workers' union, told Reuters TV.
"The struggle against forced labor is not incompatible with the idea of giving rights to people who do this job with consent," added Mertreuil, who wore a red badge imprinted with the words "Woman of Pleasure".
Tolerance for prostitution in France lies in a middle ground between attitudes in the Netherlands and Germany, where registered sex workers pay taxes and receive health benefits, and Sweden, where tough laws target the clients of prostitution.
In France, with an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 prostitutes according to a 2012 report by the Scelles Foundation, prostitution is not illegal, although laws exist against pimping, human trafficking and soliciting sex in public.
A long-running debate about whether to toughen legislation has resurfaced under Socialist President Francois Hollande, who enforced gender parity in his cabinet for the first time and created a ministry for women's rights.
Supporters of tougher laws cite the expansion of street prostitution in and around major cities, as criminal gangs smuggle hundreds of sex workers from Asia, French-speaking Africa and eastern Europe into France each year.
However Maitresse Gilda, a transgender sex worker, argued that a soliciting ban would play into the hands of criminals.
"It would create an American-style prohibition, to the joy of all the gangs that would be happy to organize encounters between customers and sex workers in secret," she said.
(Writing by Nick Vinocur; Editing by Pravin Char)