France’s Senate has rejected a planned 2013 law penalising people who pay for sex, and has chosen to maintain the offence of soliciting.
Although prostitution is legal in France, soliciting in public and pimping are not.
The National Assembly voted 16 months ago to impose a 1,500 (£1,090; $1,600) fine on clients, shifting the criminal burden from prostitutes.
The upper house’s decision to scrap the fine will now go back to the assembly.
Social affairs minister Marisol Touraine said that Monday night’s vote was “absolutely unbelievable and contemptuous towards women”.
But Joelle Garriaud-Maylam, a conservative senator, argued that the offence of soliciting was a useful resource for the authorities. “To help these women, you first of all have to identify them.”