The legislation must still be approved by the lower house, but has already drawn fierce opposition from sex workers, who said it would drive prostitution further underground and make them vulnerable to abuse.
Hundreds of prostitutes — many South American and Chinese — took to the streets of Paris on Saturday to protest against the proposed law.
The senators reversed an earlier draft of the law, proposed by the lower house National Assembly, that would have made the clients of prostitutes liable for fines.
The legislation is likely to be revised yet again by the lower house before hitting the statute books.
Health Minister Marisol Touraine hit out at the Senate, saying: “What happened … is absolutely unbelievable and contemptuous towards women.”
Putting the blame on prostitutes rather than their clients is “regressive” and “deprives us of a major tool to reduce demand and therefore prostitution,” she added.
Associations representing prostitutes said the offence of soliciting made the women’s job harder and made them subject to harassment and abuse.
Prostitution is legal in France and there are an estimated 30,000 sex workers in the country, more than 80 percent of whom come from abroad.
According to the interior ministry, most are from eastern Europe, Africa, China and South America.
Gregoire Thery, head of a group that urges the complete abolition of prostitution, took aim at the Senate’s vote.
“The Senate has chosen to protect the complete impunity of clients and prefers to penalise even further the prostitutes instead of these men,” he said. – AFP