Ludovic Franceschet, 47, agrees when I ask him if he feels like he has lived a thousand lives.
Kicked out of the French army aged 18 after a major told him that they had had enough of “that kind of race,” referring to his homosexuality, he became homeless, sleeping on the streets of Valence (Drôme) and Paris (Ile-de-france) for ten years.
His redemption came when he passed the French exam to become a refuse collector, ending decades of low self-confidence. Finally he was able to serve his country in a different way.
His journey of rediscovery really began on May 22, 2019, when he uploaded his first video about being a binman in Paris to TikTok, then a new social-media platform that would become the most popular among youngsters.
French people know him as ludovicf_off, his official name on TikTok, where 280,000 people follow him to watch the educational videos he posts of him cleaning the streets of Paris. Some have topped a million views.
Since then, he has been congratulated by Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo and Ile-de-France president, Valérie Pécresse, he has released a song, founded an association, signed partnerships with a French newspaper, and helped to raise awareness about the job by giving talks in schools.
Read more: Paris to have a ‘manifesto for beauty’ after social media criticism
Last summer, he cleaned every one of Paris’ 37 bridges on his days off.
The Connexion spoke to him during one of his shifts, during which he would stop the conversation to explain what he was collecting, or to talk to the Parisians coming up to congratulate him.
Why did you pick up TikTok and did you expect it to take off so fast?
Well, it was the first social media I had learnt about, so I thought “Why not?” Next thing I knew, my first video – a compilation of pictures taken at work – was watched more than 350,000 times.
I spent hour upon hour trying to answer all the queries (laughs). Now, sadly, I just don’t have the time.
Do you use TikTok to make people aware about cleaning behaviours and about your job?
Exactly. At first, I wanted to put my job under the spotlight… [The conversation is interrupted] “Hello, how are you doing? Yeah! I’m doing great. Thanks!”
Do you get noticed in the street?
Yes. I am always baffled by everyone’s enthusiasm. It is absolutely great.
You know, when the first video was published, a colleague told me I should build up my social media profile. You will be the first ‘cleaner influencer’ he told me.
After that, it all made sense: raising awareness, showing our job, shooting more educational videos.
But I am not an ‘influencer’. I do not sell anything. I just want you to throw your rubbish away properly and teach your children to do the same. I sell the idea of good civic behaviour, without any promo deals.
Read more: French town urges dog owners to clean up pet mess with fake €10 notes
How is the job perceived in France?
Nowadays, people do not care at all about us, even though we are an essential part of society.
We have become vital. Why? Because there is rubbish everywhere. Without us, the rubbish would pile up.
People rely too much on each other, or on the State, and expect these things to be done almost magically.
Read more: ‘Polluter pays’: French tobacco firms to fund cigarette butt clear-up
You mean people have stopped being responsible for their own rubbish?
Nobody takes the initiative anymore. If you look at the challenges in my videos, they are extremely simple, but so important.
I feel like I have superpowers with the sweeper in my hands.
[The conversation is interrupted again] Right now, there is a massive dog sh** facing me.
Take the touring of Paris’ bridges for instance. I cleaned 2,300 litres of rubbish –or 23 bags – that otherwise would have gone into the Seine. Plus, I have a massive challenge ahead.
I am going to walk from Paris to Marseille from 1 August to 10 September and clean all along the N7 road. There are 14,000 stops planned.
I cannot wait, but I dread to think what I will see, as motorways are the dirtiest environments in France.
When I walked from Etampes (Essonne) to Paris, I picked up a Coca-Cola bottle in a cornfield. How did it end up there?
[The conversation is interrupted again] “How are you doing? Me, the star? No, it’s the job that is the star. Yeah, I’m doing a phone interview with a journalist. Thank you, you too. Happy New Year!”
Does this happen a lot, considering you have 280,000 followers on TikTok?
More often lately. As for TikTok, it is more difficult to gain followers now because the algorithm has changed to favour those paying to be on the platform.
My videos get around 1,500 views now, compared to some which reached a million a year ago.
Read more: French MPs back social media age restrictions for teenagers
Do you feel like your story is a revenge against life?
It is more like I owe the planet. When I was homeless, a lot of people helped me without asking for anything in exchange.
I will owe these people for the rest of my life. I do what I do now for all of these people.
How did you deal with what that army major told you?
He’s the ***hole. He lost someone who was willing to dedicate his life to France.
I was about to get sent to New Caledonia and everything was cancelled after they discovered my homosexuality.
I still think even now I wouldn’t be sent, because homosexuality in the forces remains a big taboo.
Tell me about fulfilling your dream of travelling to San Francisco
Once I had landed there, it was all about the American Dream, the massive size of the buildings, the Golden Gate, the cable car etc. It was absolutely amazing.
I toured the Castro district, the heart of the gay community with loads of bars. Let me tell you, I spent the best night of my life there (laughs.)
But this is where I also noticed throngs of homeless people carrying bin bags. They were picking up bottles in the streets to earn some money by taking them to nearby trash-collecting centres. [The conversation is interrupted again] Here it is, my first bottle of pi** of the day!
Since you mention it, how do you get across the clean aspect of your job?
I tell students that we are important to society. I mean, they are really happy to hear about the story behind Eugène Poubelle, the founder of the poubelle.
I tell them that the bin is my best friend.
I emphasise comical and playful aspects of the job. And it works.
What happened when you passed the refuse-collecting exam after years believing yourself to be worth nothing?
I cried. And called my mother. And she cried. It was a moment of recognition.
I knew from that day that I had found my path to success. Raising awareness about the job came afterwards.
I thought that this is how I would serve my country. And now at least I will leave a mark.
And a clean one! (laughs)
You know, I have never littered the streets, nor have I ever taken a pi**!
Have you noticed a change in people’s behaviour since you joined the refuse-collecting service?
No. It is getting worse to be honest. The streets are full of cigarette butts and plastic bottles.
Everytime I am stopped by people in the street, I advise them to put their rubbish in the bins.
This is the most important thing, and what we are here for. Please, throw your rubbish in the bin.
Meet the Englishman whose litter selfie kick-started a new career
France’s Catholic ‘influencers’ find new audience online
Solar bins crush rubbish in Nice to end overflowing waste on streets