Paris - French lawmakers on Wednesday approved a controversial bill that will make the clients of prostitutes liable for fines starting at €1 500.
The draft anti-prostitution law was approved by the lower house National Assembly with 268 deputies voting in favour, 138 voting against and 79 abstaining.
The bill, which now has to receive the approval of the upper house Senate, was inspired by similar legislation in Sweden which penalises prostitutes' clients with the aim of eliminating the world's oldest profession.
It was sponsored by women's rights minister Najat Vallaud-Blekacem, who hailed Wednesday's vote as "the end of a long road strewn with pitfalls".
Campaigners for the abolition of prostitution welcomed a "historic advance".
"France has placed itself at the side of those who prostitute themselves, against those who take advantage of their vulnerability," campaign group the Mouvement du Nid said in a statement.
Critics, who include some of France's most prominent celebrities, say the legislation will simply push prostitution further underground and make the women who earn their living from it more vulnerable to abuse.
Paying or accepting payment for sex currently is not, in itself, a crime in France. But soliciting, pimping (which includes running brothels), and the sale of sex by minors are prohibited.
The new bill decriminalises soliciting while shifting the focus of policing efforts to the clients.20 000 sex workers in France
The government says the new bill is aimed at preventing violence against women and protecting the large majority of prostitutes who are victims of trafficking gangs.
Under its terms, anyone found to have purchased the services of a prostitute will be fined €1 500 for a first offence and more than double that for subsequent breaches.
Offenders may however be offered the alternative of going on a course designed to raise awareness of the realities of prostitution and the human misery that underpins much of it.
In Sweden, a law passed in 1999 which exposes users to possible six-month prison terms and income-related fines has reduced street prostitution by half since it was adopted, but is not clear how much of that trade has simply moved to the internet.
Norway and Finland have moved in a similar direction and Germany is currently considering reversing its decade-old experiment with legalising brothels.
There are an estimated 20 000-plus sex workers in France, with more than 80% of them from abroad. According to the interior ministry, most of them come from eastern Europe, Africa, China and South America.
The bill has provisions to help prostitutes who want to get out of the profession, for which a budget of €20m per year has been allocated.
Those include granting some foreigners six-month, renewable residence permits to make it easier for them to find other work.
Many members of the opposition right-wing UMP party took exception to this clause, arguing that it provides an incentive for illegal immigration.
As well as the issue of whether the legislation will lead to a reduction in the exploitation of prostitutes by pimps and people traffickers, there has also been a debate in France over the fundamental principle of whether the state should seek to police the sale of sex.
Some 26 lawmakers from different parties signed a petition describing the bill as "a moralistic text" while a group of celebrities and cultural figures also came out against the bill.
Among them was Catherine Deneuve, the veteran actress who starred in Luis Bunuel's 1967 film "Belle de Jour", which explores the relationship between prostitution and sexuality.
A group styling themselves as the "343 Bastards" issued a manifesto entitled "Don't touch my whore!" and there was less predictable opposition to the legal text from Elisabeth Baninter, one of France's most prominent feminists, who argued that it was based on a simplistic and stereotypical view of male sexuality and its relationship to violence against women.
The small proportion of prostitutes who work independently - and who pay tax on their earnings - have also been vocal in their opposition to a bill they say has already scared clients away.