Prostitution is legal in France, but soliciting customers is not. It always has been a difficult distinction to make in practice, and [on June 2, 1975] the angry prostitutes of Lyon decided that the police were trampling on their rights. As part of Interior Minister Michel Poniatowski’s general crackdown on vice, local police had been regularly pulling in Lyon’s lovelies and fining them $40 for “conduct tending to provoke debauchery.” In protest, some 200 prostitutes from the Lyon area camped with sleeping bags in the 15th century St.-Nizier church and announced that they would continue to occupy the premises until police were ordered to ease the pressure.
The group demanded support from Françoise Giroud, State Secretary for Women’s Affairs, and even from President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Recalling Giscard’s campaign promise to be “President of all the French,” the hookers noted logically that he was “thus President of the prostitutes.” “Why should we be considered marginal members of society?” demanded Ulla, a comely mid-20s blonde who was declared spokesperson for the group. The ladies got more support from a friendly Lyon public, in the form of free food and drink, than from the government. State Secretary Giroud referred the problem to the Minister of the Interior. “Prostitution is a masculine phenomenon,” she remarked in passing the buck. Father Antonin Béal, the parish priest, offered perhaps the most resourceful response to St.-Nizier’s unlikely occupation forces. Timidly presenting himself in front of his captive audience, he delivered a sermonette on the redemption of Mary Magdalen.
The homily did not work. At week’s end, in fact, the prostitutes’ strike spread to other cities. Emulating their sisters in Lyon, an estimated 200 girls gathered at a chapel in an office development in central Paris. A church in Marseilles was occupied by another 200 unhappy hookers. In the Riviera resorts of Cannes and Nice a number of prostitutes stayed away from their customary sidewalk beats.
Twenty-six years ago today, sex workers began a week-long occupation of Saint-Nizier church in Lyon, France. The above article about the protest ran in TIME magazine.
Today, June 2 is International Sex Workers Day - a day to celebrate resistance.