A man or woman may seek or offer compensation for sexual services, but may not advertise this fact. Owning or operating a brothel is illegal. Passive solicitation is also prohibited. If someone working as a prostitute stands in a public place known as a place where prostitutes congregate, dressed in somewhat revealing attire, it is considered passive solicitation, punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine of £5,000.
Paying someone for sexual services (except those under 18) is not illegal in France.
France is an "abolitionist" country - its public policy is the eradication of prostitution. However, it considers that making it illegal to offer sexual services in return for goods or services in the context of one's private life is a violation of individual liberty.
The 2007 Socialist Party Manifesto calls for holding clients "responsible". The vague language is due to the fact that such measures remain controversial in the Socialist Party. The Manifesto also calls for repealing the ban on "passive solicitation".
Many sex workers oppose more constraining legislation since that would prevent them from choosing their clients, the acts they wish to perform, etc.
A 2002 telephone survey analysed French attitudes about prostitution. 64% of respondents said that prostitution was "a degrading practice for the image and the dignity of the woman (or the man)". 66% of those questioned favoured the reopening of the brothels, 37% wanted the clients to be criminalized, 22% wanted the prostitutes to be criminalized and 33% wanted all forms of prostitution to be illegal. When analysed and broken down by age and gender, the survey showed that some people gave contradictory answers: for example some people appeared to favour both the reopening of the brothels and the interdiction of all forms of prostitution (probably believing that both solutions would work, as the survey showed that most people were dissatisfied with the existing legal situation). Older people and men were more accepting of the idea of having legalized brothels. 
Studies from 2003 estimated that about 15,000 - 20,000 women work as prostitutes in France.
Regular street prostitution is partly controlled by pimps and partly consists of autonomous prostitutes. The most famous prostitution street in Paris, la Rue Saint-Denis, has been somewhat gentrified in recent years and the prostitutes have been moved up north.
In bars, women try to induce men to buy expensive drinks along with sexual services. Prices are set by the bar owner, and the money is shared between the owner and the prostitute. Pigalle peepshows are well-known for practising such scams.
Apartment prostitution is frequently advertised in the adult newspapers.
Swingers' clubs are places where partner-swapping occurs and sometimes paid prostitutes are in attendance, as well as 'amateur' women and couples who get in without paying the flat-rate charge of about 80 to 120 euros that men pay, including food, drink and unlimited sex sessions, with the added twist that these are performed in the open in full view of all the guests.
In 2004, the average earnings of a French prostitute were estimated at €500 a day. For Sub-Saharian prostitutes living in France, it was less, around €200-300. Some barely made €50-150 a week.
In the middle of the 13th century, King Louis IX allowed brothels (then called bordeaux, from which the modern word derives) outside of city centers. The appearance of syphilis had stigmatized these houses at the end of the 16th century, but their continued existence was confirmed by King Henry IV.
In the early 19th century, Napoleon ordered the registration and bi-weekly health inspection of all prostitutes. Legal brothels (then known as "maisons de tolérance" or "maisons closes") started to appear in Paris and in other cities and became highly popular throughout the century. They had to be run by a woman (typically a former prostitute) and their external appearance had to be discreet. By 1810, Paris alone had 180 officially approved brothels.
Among the most expensive and best known maisons de tolérance in Paris were:
More sordid brothels, offering quick and dirty services, the maisons d’abattage, were also popular amongst the lower-class.
During the World War II German occupation of France, twenty top Paris brothels, including le Chabanais, le Sphinx and le One Two Two, were reserved by the Wehrmacht for German officers and collaborating Frenchmen. The brothels flourished during this time, and Hermann Goering visited Le Chabanais, as is related in the 2009 two-volume book 1940-1945 Années Erotiques by Patrick Buisson.
Paintings and drawings of scenes in these brothels were produced by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso, among others. Brassaï published photographs of brothels in his 1935 book Voluptés de Paris. A voluminous illustrated work on the phenomenon is Maisons closes. L'histoire, l'art, la littérature, les moeurs by Romi (Robert Miquet), first published in 1952.
The Musée de l'Erotisme in Paris devotes one floor to the maisons closes. It exhibits Polissons et galipettes, a collection of short erotic silent movies that were used to entertain brothel visitors, and copies of Le Guide Rose, a contemporary brothel guide that also carried advertising. The 2003 BBC Four documentary Storyville - Paris Brothel describes the maisons closes.
After the war, Marthe Richard, a town councillor in Paris and former street prostitute, successfully campaigned for the closure of all brothels. On 13 April 1946, the "loi de Marthe Richard" was passed with votes of the Christian-Democrat MRP and the Communist PCF. As a result the legal brothels were closed and the prostitute registries destroyed. Roughly 20,000 women were affected by this law and approximately 1400 houses closed.
Many former brothel owners soon opened "hôtels de passe" instead where prostitutes could keep on working but the visibility of their activities remained somewhat hidden. Prostitution thus became a free activity: forbidden was only its organization and exploitation - i.e. pimping - and its visual manifestations.
Active solicitation was also outlawed in the late 1940s. Passive solicitation was outlawed in 2003 as part of a package of law-and-order measures by then interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. Prostitutes' organizations decried the measure, calling it punitive and prone to increase the power of pimps.