Infamy on top of incompetence (where is Laurent Schwartz? part 1)


Thomas Piketty, nicknamed (by the Financial Times) the “rock-star economist,” author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, reacted vigorously in his blog in Le Monde to the proposal by French President François Hollande to amend the constitution to allow the revocation of the citizenship of French binationals convicted of terrorism.  Here is a full translation of Piketty’s statement.

To its economic incompetence, the government has now added infamy.  Not satisfied with having been consistently wrong in its economic policy choices since 2012 [the year of Hollande’s election, MH], with the rise in unemployment and xenophobia as the inevitable result, the government has now decided to run behind the Front National by imposing a law allowing the revocation of citizenship that the left has always combatted, and by creating an unbearable and stigmatizing unequal status — which is moreover completely useless and ineffective in fighting terrorism — for millions of French people born in France whose sole error was to have obtained a second nationality at some point in their lives for family reasons.

All those on the left who reject this deplorable policy should unite to demand a civic primary on the left in 2017 [the year of the next presidential election in France, MH] in order to choose the best candidate to oppose the right and the extreme right.…

A few decades ago, the voice of civic outrage and defense of democratic rights would very likely have been that of Laurent Schwartz.  The image copied above from the CNRS page in honor of Schwartz’s centennial is an excerpt of the letter from Pierre Messmer, Minister of Armies, dated October 11, 1960, informing Schwartz of his suspension from his professorship at the École Polytechnique for having signed the Manifeste des 121 opposing the French war in Algeria and in particular calling on the government to recognize the right to conscientious objection.  (He was reinstated a few years later.)

Many mathematicians outside France are not familiar with the story of Schwartz’s student Maurice Audin, whose death under torture in Algeria in 1957 has never been officially recognized by the French government.  How Schwartz reacted is vividly recounted in K. Chandrasekharan’s review of Schwartz’s autobiography for the Notices of the AMS:

While [Schwartz] sympathised with the goal of self-determination [in Algeria], he kept his distance from the nationalist movement. Matters came to a head in an unexpected fashion, and he was inexorably drawn into the political vortex. Maurice Audin, a graduate student from Algeria, who was to have completed his doctoral thesis in Paris under his supervision, was suddenly arrested (11 June 1957) in Algeria and disappeared. Audin was French, not a Muslim, but a communist. It turned out that he had been tortured and murdered at the hands of the forces of law and order (on 21 June). There was no official response to numerous inquiries. This cut Schwartz to the quick, outraged his sense of justice, and triggered his determination to galvanize public opinion against the practice of torture, and especially against the abuse of the special powers invoked by

the government for the use of third-degree methods to put down the rebels in Algeria. Schwartz focussed on the case of Audin (as Gandhi did on the salt tax), founded the Audin Committee (fall 1957) to demand a clarification of the circumstances surrounding his death, arranged for the award of a doctor’s degree, in absentia, for Audin’s nearly, but not quite, complete thesis (December 1957), and wrote a famous article in L’Express on “the revolt of the universities” against the practice of torture by governments. His photograph appeared
on the cover, and the article gained the attention and support of a wide public and made him a national political figure.

More information can be found at the website of the 40-year commemoration of the Audin affair, at which Schwartz and other surviving members of the Audin committee spoke.

The Socialist government of Manuel Valls, like its (equally Socialist) predecessor in 1957, has granted itself “special powers” (a “state of emergency”) in the current crisis; it is also proposing to change the constitution.  Opponents of the Algerian war ran a real risk of assassination — the homes of both Schwartz and his fellow Bourbakiste Roger Godement were attacked by the OAS with plastic explosives.   The situation in France is not yet as grim as it was at the time; nevertheless, one has to admire Piketty’s courage in taking a public stand when it would be much easier for him to remain silent.  As the first French Fields Medalist, Schwartz was already a public figure before he became known for his outspoken views in favor of human rights.  The French media like to boast that there have been twelve additional French Fields Medalists since then.  Will they follow Schwartz’s example by devoting their charisma to the defense of democracy and equality?




6 thoughts on “Infamy on top of incompetence (where is Laurent Schwartz? part 1)

  1. Kantor

    comparaison n’est pas raison,and comparing Piketty with Schwartz seems a bit … ” une provoc”:I know the immense success of Piketty ‘s work in the US,but it does NOT give him in my eyes the position of the universal mathematician , ‘ ´ discoverer ´ ´ (after Sobolev) of the theory of generalized functions. One should insist on the crucial role of Godement who was professor at Algiers University,and who has always been modest (!)…


  2. Michael Barany

    “As the first French Fields Medalist, Schwartz was already a public figure before he became known for his outspoken views in favor of human rights.”
    Historically, I think you’ve got that backwards. The Fields Medal helped Schwartz have a large international profile among mathematicians after 1950 (though even in France it did not guarantee him, e.g., a job of his choosing in Paris), but one didn’t become a public figure by virtue of the Fields Medal until after 1966, at the earliest, and even then it was not a guarantee (just look at the list of medalists since then and ask how many became public figures, even in France). In fact, it was Schwartz’s political activism (and more directly Smale’s) that helped make the Fields Medal significant to the wider public. See my article from a year ago:


  3. Kantor

    Smale and Fields medal value are not really relevant here ,bur for a relevant aspect of moral and social international aspects of the mathematical community ,it might be interesting to study the connection of Cold War withe Fields medal ś committee attributing the medal to Schwartz :
    see for example my article :
    Mathematics East and West, Theory and Practice: the Example of Distributions, Math. Intelligencer, v. 26, 2004.


  4. Pingback: The problem isn’t terrorism, the problem is fear | Come to think about it

  5. Pingback: Justice, finally, for Maurice Audin | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

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