In the first chapters of Guy de Maupassant's novel Bel-Ami, the main character, Georges Duroy, is trying to learn the craft of journalism. The end of the book's fourth chapter tells us that he meets all sorts of people while looking for news, information and gossip that may be used for articles (emphasis added):

Il eut des rapport continus avec des ministres, des concierges, des généraux, des agents de police, des princes, des souteneurs, des courtisanes, des ambassadeurs, des évêques, des proxénètes, des rastaqouères, (...).

I have always assumed that souteneur and proxénète were synonyms. However, this would imply a repetition of the same concept in the above passange, which does not make much sense. Did late 19th-century French distinguish between two categories of pimps or does Maupassant have other meanings of "souteneur" and "proxénète" in mind? If the latter, which would be those meanings?

  • I won't dare to put it forward as the definite answer, but there is maybe a slight difference between the souteneur (who protects prostitutes in exchange for a share of their profits) and the proxénète (who merely organizes contacts with the clients, or owns a brothel). In many cases, both functions are then fullfilled by the same person. I have checked a couple of dictionaries, but I do not see this difference being clearly documented. – Greg May 18 '20 at 15:03
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    Upon seeing your literature.SE question, I looked at some 19th century French dictionnaires d'argot (which I found on Google books), and it seemed to me that a souteneur was a pimp (un homme), and a proxénète was a madam (une femme). I'm too busy right now to do the research necessary to give a definitive answer, so if anybody else wants to, please go ahead. – Peter Shor May 21 '20 at 17:46

In the 19th century, it appears that a souteneur was a pimp (un homme), and a proxénète was a madam (une femme).

If you look at this Dictionnaire d'argot fin de siècle from 1894, on Google books, it says

PROXÉNÈTE : ou maquerelle ; c'est la même chose.

La proxénète est à l'affût de toutes les misères pour livrer les malheureuses à la prostitution.

Today, at least according to wiktionary, a maquerelle is a woman, a souteneur is a man, and proxénète has become a word that can apply to either sex.

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    Note that maquerelle has a matching masculine form: maquereau.. – Greg May 22 '20 at 5:20

The famous Littré dictionary (four volumes, 1880s) provides the following definition of souteneur:

2 Particulièrement, celui qui se fait le champion d'une maison de jeu ou de quelque mauvais lieu. Un souteneur de filles.

Volume 3 of the same dictionary defines proxénète as follows:

2 Aujourd'hui, en mauvaise part, entremetteur de certains marchés honteux entre les deux sexes.

Delvau's Dictionnaire de la langue verte (literally "dictionary of green language", i.e. argot) defines souteneur as follows:

Homme qui vit aux dépens des filles, — dans l'argot du peuple.

This dictionary has no entry for "proxénète", although the term is used in entries for other terms (see lanceuse and ogresse, a "madam").

Delesalle's Dictionnaire Argot-Français & Français-Argot (1896) provides the following definition of souteneur:

Celui qui vit aux dépens des prostituées, et qu'on appelle ainsi parce qu'il est censé les soutenir quand elles sont instultées.

The dictionary entry for "proxénète" says "Voy. Entremetteur" (See "entremetteur"); the entry for "entremetteur" says "Voy. Proxénète. Voy. Rouspant, Dariolet, Dariolette, Eléphant".)

Wiktionnaire provides the following definition of souteneur:

Celui qui, vivant du gain d’une prostituée, prétend assurer, en retour, sa protection.

The aspect of protection is mentioned by Littré but not by Delvau.

Wiktionnaire defines proxénète as follows:

Personne qui tire profit de la prostitution d’autrui ou bien la favorise.

The definition does not state whether a proxénète is male or female, but quotes a sentence from Proust that illustrates that it could be a woman ("mais il l’aimait comme une proxénète").

Finally, Virmaitre's Dictionnaire d'argot fin-de-siècle (1894) provides the following definition of proxénète:

Proxénète: Ou maquerelle; c'est la même chose.
La proxénète est à l'affût de toutes les misères pour livrer les malheureuses à la prostitution.

And souteneur:

Souteneur: Individu qui vit des filles qui se livrent à la prostitution, fainéant, voleur et assassin si l'occasion se présente; on le trouve en haut comme en bas de l'échelle sociale (Argot du peuple).

In summary, we have the following:

  • A proxénète is a woman according to Virmaitre, and can be a woman based on Delvau and Wiktionnaire. Littré provides no information on this matter.
  • A souteneur is a man (in fact, the ending eur already suggests this), who, according to Littré, Delesalle and Wiktionnaire, provides "protection" (the quotes are mine) while living of the gains made by prostitutes. The aspect of protection is not mentioned by Delvau and is at best ambiguous in Virmaitre.

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