Cédric Villani’s political orientation has come under increasing scrutiny since his election as deputy on the “République En Marche” (LREM) list created by French President Emmanuel Macron, whose own popularity has fallen precipitously over the first two years of his mandate. Villani’s announcement that he would run, and occasionally dance, for the LREM slot in next year’s race to replace Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo — Villani was president of her campaign committee in 2014 — roughly coincided with the development of the Yellow Vest movement in protest against Macron’s policies, which are perceived (quite rightly) as undemocratic and upwardly redistributive. Macron’s approval rating has dropped to 27%, while the Yellow Vests were enjoying up to 60-75% approval, in spite of repeated attempts by the press to depict them as a Trojan Horse for the far right. Such attempts have been considerably more successful abroad than in France. No doubt this is because, for at least 25 years, every time a popular movement arose in France in opposition to the neoliberal trickle-down consensus that united the two main governing parties — the socialists (apparently fatally damaged by former President Hollande’s undistinguished record) and the right, currently called “Les républicains” — the mainstream press warned that such protests could only benefit the far right; the warning lost its force as living standards declined for much of the population, whichever party was in power, and the decline continues under Macron’s post-partisan leadership.
Each of the two major governing parties has been hit repeatedly by scandal. Macron was supposed to put an end to that, but the “Jupiterian President” quickly got caught up in a particularly sordid and growing scandal involving the unconventional and largely illegal employment of a security staffer named Alexandre Benalla (this is too complicated to explain here, but you can find an account here, not including the most recent developments).
Inevitably, Macron’s unpopularity has rubbed off on Villani. His Tweets now routinely provoke mocking suggestions that he should stick to mathematics: he is taken to task for failing to address the shocking consequences of police repression of Yellow Vest demonstrations — 18 eyes lost to flashballs as of this writing, 4 hands lost to dispersal grenades, and hundreds of other injuries, many of them disfiguring; for his silence on the Benalla affair; and for many of his votes in the National Assembly (his vote on the Loi Asile-immigration is the focus of an open letter by the mathematician Charles Boubel published in the CNRS magazine Image des Mathématiques).
It didn’t have to be this way. Maurice Chiodo and Piers Bursill-Hall, in the first of an ongoing series of Ethics in Mathematics Discussion Papers, identify “four levels of ethical engagement,” in increasing order. Villani examplifies the third level, “Taking a seat at the table of power.” “[B]eing at that table,” they write, “gives a participating mathematician the potential to influence the ethical consequences of what is done with the maths.” In his insightful report on Villani in The New Yorker, Thomas Lin quotes Villani’s collaborator and former student Clément Mouhot:
Many mathematicians are glad that Villani is willing to participate in public life, Mouhot said, so that they don’t have to.
Chiodo and Bursill-Hall note with approval that a committee under Villani’s direction recently prepared a thorough and remarkably persuasive report for the French government on how to prepare France for the arrival of AI in mainstream society. The particular strength of this report is that its authors have a deep grasp of the technology and the mathematics behind AI, and that gives them a particular political authority.
Chiodo and Lara Gordon elaborate on this in a later Discussion Paper, arguing that Villani’s report compares favorably, in both its ambition and its attention to ethical issues, with a British report on the topic.
In view of Villani’s remarkable success in persuading Macron’s administration to admit France’s responsibility in the torture and murder of the mathematician Maurice Audin — perhaps his most [notable] achievement to date — one would also have thought that Villani would be sensitive to the question of police repression.
Villani at the Père Lachaise cemetery June 11, 2019, at the ceremony
in honor of Maurice and Josette Audin
As of this writing it’s not clear how far Macron’s administration will follow the suggestions of Villani’s report. One recommendation —
Doubling salaries in the early stages of their careers at the very least is a vital starting point, otherwise the pool of young graduates interested in higher education and academic research will definitively dry up. [Villani et al, p. 11]
was mentioned prominently in Le Monde‘s coverage. Not surprisingly, it was welcomed by French researchers, most of whom have seen the graph circulated in 2008 that predicts a straight-line evolution of starting research salaries to the French minimum wage, with convergence scheduled for 2025; as far as I know the evolution continues on track. The salary recommendation was intended “to make public research careers more attractive” in the face of competition from the GAFAM tech giants. This particular suggestion disappeared without a trace, and one naturally suspects that Villani, in taking on the mission assigned to him, missed the point of neoliberalism, which is precisely its ideological commitment to market solutions to practically all problems. Encouraging public academic research, on this reading, is perfectly inconsistent with Macron’s signature policies — lowering taxes on the rich and on corporations while raising them on the less fortunate; deep cuts in public services in health and education; elimination of favorable conditions for workers in the national railroad and plans for its future privatization; a “reform” of university admissions that has left hundreds of thousands of high school graduates with no options whatsoever; and a plan to multiply fees by 10 for students from outside the EU, including doctoral students. Attacks on the national pension system and privatization of the Paris airports are on this year’s agenda. (See Didier Fassin’s report in the London Review of Books for a thorough analysis of Macron’s “authoritarian neoliberalism.”)
But perhaps it did have to be this way, after all. Villani and Macron are both alumni of the French-American Foundation France, where they overlapped as “Young Leaders” in 2012. The existence of the think tank seems not to be well-known, but former “Young Leaders” include some of the French welfare state’s most prominent gravediggers, and an astonishing proportion of presidential contenders as well as leading cabinet members and political figures in both countries (included are Alain Juppé, François Hollande, both Bill and Hilary Clinton, General Wesley Clark, LA mayor Eric Garcetti, current French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, and two directors of Le Monde, among many, many others). Not all alumni are neoliberals — Didier Fassin’s brother Eric, a prominent leftist intellectual, is on the list, as is filmmaker Charles Ferguson — but you could do worse than to use the list to map the boundaries of mainstream political opinion.
Macron’s party is scheduled to choose their candidate this coming week for next year’s Paris mayoral election. The French president reportedly prefers Benjamin Griveaux, but Libération reported on July 5 that it’s increasingly likely Villani will be chosen to face incumbent mayor Anne Hidalgo. Villani was president of Hidalgo’s support committee in 2014, but he now claims to be dissatisfied with her record. There are sensible reasons to be dissatisfied with Hidalgo, but most of the complaints I read seem to have to do with cars and bicycles. Villani himself explained that
Quand on entre aujourd’hui dans Paris, on arrive à des portes qui sont souvent taguées, sales, dans une ambiance d’embouteillage phénoménale et ce n’est pas possible.
All true, but not more so than 20 years ago. Many of my mathematical colleagues are convinced that Villani’s true goal is the French presidency. How many more compromises will this “Young Leader” have to accept before he gets there?
UPDATE: Macron’s party’s chose Benjamin Griveaux, not Villani, to run for mayor of Paris next year. Villani is considering his next steps. Meanwhile, yet another member of Macron’s government, François de Rugy (Minister of Ecological Transition), is caught up in a huge scandal, involving (among other things) lobsters.