Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Reddé has been hoisting his large colorful signs at almost every street protest for more than ten years. In doing so, he embodies France’s enduring passion for demonstrations. The New York Times got a chance to talk to the protest legend: “Demonstrating is my passion and my main purpose in life.”
In recent weeks, one demonstration has almost run into another at our southern neighbors. Trade unionists lead the marches and demonstrators shout fiery slogans. Clashes with the police also break out here and there. France has a long tradition of demonstrating and many Frenchmen have also held a banner more than once. Yet there are not many people who go as far as Jean-Baptiste Reddé.
Reddé gave up his job as a teacher ten years ago and devoted himself almost full-time to protesting. “This is what rules my life,” he said in a recent interview with The New York Times, “Demonstrating is what I feel best about and where I find purpose.”
These days, France is in turmoil over government plans to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 as part of a pension overhaul. By allowing the population to work longer, they hope to be able to continue paying pensions. But Reddé disagrees, as his sign also reads: “Taxing the rich of the country would be much more effective.
His signature plates have become a phenomenon. They surfaced after the government tried to raise the gas tax. They showed up at marches for women’s rights. And they have made Mr Reddé a protagonist in French demonstrations. He’s a “Where’s Wally?” which invariably shows up at every protest.
He estimates he probably attended more than 1,000 protests. “Demonstrating is like loving,” Reddé told The New York Times, “You don’t keep count.”
The son of an English teacher and a stay-at-home mom, Reddé grew up during the May 1968 uprisings. It wasn’t long before he joined anti-grade petitions as a student. With a university degree in English and a passion for poetry, he became an elementary school teacher in the late 1970s. Then he took part in his first street protest, against changes in the education system.
“Empathy for everything”
“I feel empathy for everything, both people and animals. I am a bit of a sponge”, says Reddé, “So I demonstrate”.
Paris has about five demonstrations a day, according to government figures. French sociologist Olievier Fillieule says the country’s “culture of protest” is rooted in a long history of centralized state power that left little room for collective bargaining. This made the street the best route to change.
Some of France’s most important social gains were achieved through mass protests, including the right to paid holidays in the 1930s. In schools, children study the biggest social movements that shook the country, making protests an inevitable part of life of every French citizen. Yet there is hardly anyone who is as attached to the protest as Redé and his colorful signs.
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