The French Like Protesting, but This Frenchman May Like It the Most

A human tide swept through Paris last month for the type of event France knows only too well — a protest. Union leaders led the march, awash in a multicolored sea of flags. Demonstrators shouted fiery slogans. Clashes with the police erupted.

And, as in every protest, there was Jean-Baptiste Reddé.

He held a giant placard over his head that read, “Tax evasion must fund our pensions.” Its distinctive colorful capital letters stood out in the dense crowd.

Signs like that have been Mr. Reddé’s trademark since he retired from his teaching job a decade ago and dedicated himself nearly full time to protesting. He has since become a personal embodiment of France’s enduring passion for demonstration, rooted in a culture that sees change as a prize to be won, and defended, in the streets.

“This is what governs my life,” he said in a recent interview. Demonstrating, he explained, is “where I fulfill myself and find a purpose.”

These days, France is up in arms over government plans to raise the retirement age to 64 from 62, part of a push to overhaul the pension system, the third rail of French politics. Successive governments have tried to tackle the country’s pension system, which is based on payroll taxes, arguing that people must work longer to support retirees who are living longer. But Mr. Reddé, as his placard indicated, said that taxing the country’s rich would be more effective.

His signature signs have become a common sight at many protests. They emerged above the masses in the Yellow Vest movement, which put France on edge four years ago, after the government tried to raise gas taxes. They popped up at women’s rights marches. And they have turned Mr. Reddé into a leading character of French demonstrations, a kind of “Where’s Waldo?” who invariably appears alongside unionists blowing foghorns and battalions of armor-clad riot police.

He figures he has probably attended more than 1,000 protests. “Demonstrating is like loving,” Mr. Reddé, 65, said. “You don’t count.”

The son of an English teacher and a stay-at-home mother, Mr. Reddé grew up at the time of the May 1968 uprisings, which breathed freedom into France’s stifling postwar social rules. It wasn’t long before he, as a student, joined petitions against report cards.

With a university degree in English and a passion for poetry — he treasures Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath — he became an elementary-school teacher in the late 1970s. That’s when he participated in his first street protest, against changes to the education system.

Mr. Reddé said he had demonstrated against every pension overhaul since 1995. That year, as strikes paralyzed France for weeks, he spent a night at a police station for throwing rocks at officers.

“We wanted to repeat May 1968!” he said.

Mr. Reddé retired early from teaching, in part thanks to sick leave. “I found an accommodating doctor,” he said. He lives in Burgundy off an inheritance, a small pension and financial help from friends. He often sleeps at fellow protesters’ homes before actions in Paris or elsewhere.

His curly hair is cut in the pageboy style and dyed cherry-red. His emaciated face and worn clothes give him an ascetic look. When he strides through protesting crowds — his slim, 6-foot-4 body slightly bent under his sign — he looks like one of Alberto Giacometti’s bronze sculptures of anguished men.

In the early 2000s, Mr. Reddé flooded Libération, a left-wing newspaper, with small ads calling for gatherings to promote peace in the Middle East and environmental protection. He acknowledged having “a somewhat poetic and utopian character.”

“I feel empathy for everything, human and animal suffering alike. I’m a bit of a sponge,” he said. “So I demonstrate.”

Paris records about five demonstrations every day, according to government figures, making France one of the world’s leading countries for such events each year, said Olivier Fillieule, a French sociologist. Mr. Fillieule said the country’s “protest culture” was rooted in a long history of centralized state power that made little room for collective bargaining, leaving the street the best avenue for change.

Some of France’s most significant social benefits were won through mass protests, including the right to paid vacation in the 1930s. In schools, children study the biggest social movements that have rocked the country, making protests an inevitable element of every French citizen’s life.

Still, Mr. Reddé’s devotion to demonstrating is unusual.

Before each protest, Mr. Reddé follows the same ritual. First, he thinks of a punchy slogan, drawing on his frenetic consumption of news. Past slogans include “To the 49.3, we answer 1789,” a reference to Article 49.3 of the French Constitution, which the government has used to pass laws without a vote, and to the French Revolution.

Then, on the day of the protest, Mr. Reddé buys a 3-by-5-foot placard, sits down in a cafe, grabs thick markers and draws the slogan in his time-tested design of capital letters and bright primary colors.

“We are governed by colorless people,” he said. “We must put color back into this world.”

In demonstrations, Mr. Reddé makes the most of his height to position his sign above the crowd and near politicians, drawing photographers and camera operators like a magnet.

Photos of him holding his placards in demonstrations at home and overseas have appeared in numerous newspapers and television programs over the years. In 2010, an image of him holding a sign reading “Listen to the people’s anger” was used in newspapers around the world.

His signs also illustrate French history textbooks and were displayed in a 2018 exhibition organized by Michel Batlle, a painter and sculptor, who called Mr. Reddé “an artivist.”

Mr. Reddé has been criticized for trying to steal the show. A 2015 profile in Libération said his steady presence in protests could amount to “depriving people of their voice and image.”

But in the crowds, Mr. Reddé is popular.

At the march last month, Mr. Reddé wore a yellow vest, a souvenir from his involvement in the Yellow Vest protests, which he called “a historical movement of people’s uprising, for social and environmental justice.” Demonstrators stopped him for a photo or gave him a thumbs-up.

“Irreplaceable!” one woman shouted. “Tireless,” another protester whispered to his wife.

Mr. Reddé is even a kind of human landmark.

“We call each other and say, ‘Let’s meet near Jean-Baptiste,’” said Isabelle Pluvieux, an environmental activist. “He’s a lighthouse.”

Mr. Reddé said he had found in demonstrations the love and friendship he lacked as a child.

“His family is the street,” said Mr. Batlle, the artist.

Many demonstrators praised his dedication, noting that he had participated equally in small and large protests. Mr. Reddé has also organized his own demonstrations against the use of pesticides, securing a meeting with advisers to the environment minister in 2017.

“He conveys a sense of tenacity, strength, determination,” said David Dufresne, an independent journalist who has extensively covered the Yellow Vest movement.

Mr. Dufresne pointed to the physical challenge of holding a sign aloft during the many hours a French protest usually lasts. “There’s almost a warrior monk aspect to it,” he said.

Mr. Reddé acknowledged that he suffered from knee problems and tendinitis. He often holds his sign with one arm to rest the other and sometimes winces in pain. But he dismissed the hardship as irrelevant.

“Protesting rejuvenates,” he said.

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