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Maths wizard Cédric Villani adds to Macron woes in Paris mayoral equation

French mathematician Cedric Villani, member of parliament and candidate for the Paris mayoral election, poses in the Square des Batignolles during his political campaign in Paris, France, on January 25, 2020.
French mathematician Cedric Villani, member of parliament and candidate for the Paris mayoral election, poses in the Square des Batignolles during his political campaign in Paris, France, on January 25, 2020. © Benoit Tessier, Reuters

Mathematician-turned-politician Cédric Villani wears his eccentricity on his sleeve – or, at least, on the lapel of his three-piece suit. There lurk his signature spider brooches. They stalk alongside his silken Ascot neckties and above his pocket watch, even on the campaign trail, where Emmanuel Macron's now ex-protégé is stumping for one of French politics’ most coveted prizes: The Paris mayor’s office.

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Nationwide municipal elections next month pose the first domestic mid-term vote challenge for President Macron since his meteoric rise to power as a centrist independent in 2017. They represent his La République en Marche (LREM) party's first ever chance to uproot long-held socialist and conservative bastions of power in some 35,000 town and city hall races nationwide and to sow a network of local elected officials of its own. The jewel in that crown is Paris.

Enter Villani, whose political career is younger than Macron’s fledgling movement. Recruited from academia three years ago by Macron himself, the quirky maths whizz is reshaping the geometry of the race for Paris City Hall – apparently to the president’s own detriment.

Conquering the capital in 2020 once looked like an easy fight for LREM, which did well with Parisian voters in the 2017 presidential and 2019 European elections. But amid several long weeks of transit strikes over Macron’s notorious pension reform – and existential angst over what the party that pledged political renewal should be – those chances have soured.

Now, from a lowly fifth place in the polls, Villani has exposed the party’s contradictions and sown malaise in its ranks. Critics charge the plucky dissident with setting the Socialist incumbent Anne Hidalgo on a path to re-election as Paris mayor.

Spiderman

Very likely the only candidate to have a real-life spider named in his honour (the arachnid recently designated Araniella Villanii), the foppish 46-year-old is also a political novice, a lower-house lawmaker with only half a term under his belt.

As of last week, Villani doesn’t even have a party. After President Macron asked him to step aside in favour of LREM’s official candidate – the technocratic party man Benjamin Griveaux, whose looks are often likened to a proverbial ideal son-in-law – Villani refused. In a swashbuckling statement after the Élysée Palace meeting, Villani staked the moral high ground. “Between belonging to a political machinery and [my] commitment to the city that made me, I choose to remain faithful to Parisians in maintaining my bid freely.” So the party kicked him out.

The setback hasn’t stopped Villani. On Wednesday night, he unveiled his 100-page platform to some 1,600 supporters in a Belle Époque-era concert hall near Montmartre. Pledging to “repair the Paris of 2020” and “prepare the Paris of 2030”, he pitched such proposals as using artificial intelligence to help keep streets clean and traffic fluid, dedicating €5 billion to a green transition and tap the world’s best scientists for their expertise, making three more metro lines driverless, creating 290,000 social housing units, and promoting English and maths in Paris kindergartens.

“I’m the only candidate without a party, and yet I feel I’m the only one proposing a serious platform, a government platform,” he told the daily Le Parisien this week. “It is not eccentric, but feasible.”

Villani’s confidence in his potential appeal, even now that he is on the outside looking in, isn’t surprising. He insists he’s the truer torchbearer of LREM’s foundational ideals, the promises of political renewal that got Macron elected in the first place. Looking back at Villani’s story, his meteoric rise from the blackboard to the ballot box, the professor may have a point.

Fields medallist

Villani first rose to public prominence in 2010 when he won the prestigious Fields Medal. The so-called Nobel Prize for Maths is awarded every four years to the world's most brilliant mathematical minds under 40. During the ceremony a decade ago in Hyderabad, the Fields committee rewarded Villani’s “proofs of nonlinear Landau damping and convergence to equilibrium of the Boltzmann equation”.

But the long-time head of Paris’s renowned Institut Henri Poincaré has been keen to popularise science for the masses. The father of two fancies himself the "Lady Gaga of maths". Villani’s 2016 TED Talk – entitled “What’s so sexy about math?” – has earned 2 million views. In a proficient English that would put most French politicians to shame (Villani has been a guest professor at Berkeley and Princeton), he waxed lyrical before a TED crowd in Vancouver, describing performing maths as “replacing a beautiful coincidence with a beautiful explanation”.

After a brief initial brush with politics in support of Hidalgo’s winning 2014 Paris mayoralty bid, Villani went on to back the centrist upstart Macron in his longshot independent run for the Élysée Palace.

Macron's unlikely May 2017 win rocked the French political system to its core, leaving establishment parties left and right in tatters. As a 39-year-old president-elect, Macron made good on his pledge to draw half of his fledgling La République en Marche party's legislative candidates from civil society. One of his most emblematic grassroots picks was Villani: Pro-European, an expert in his field and a long-haired, spider-brooch-wearing change from politics as usual. In June 2017, the maths whizz won a seat for LREM representing the Essonne district, in suburban Paris, sweeping to victory with 69.36 percent of the vote.

‘Non-politicians’

Days before that election, Science magazine asked the prizewinning mathematician why he was running and why with Macron. “I never recognised myself in any national political movement. But Macron’s party is enthusiastically pro-European, which has become very rare among national parties in France,” he replied. “It also went very much against the old political tradition of systematically attacking opponents during the presidential election; instead it promoted benevolence, pragmatism and progress. And the party welcomed nonpoliticians with professional expertise.”

Indeed, as a lawmaker, Villani would go on to be tasked by the prime minister with a mission on artificial intelligence and by the education minister with another on the teaching of maths in France.

“Cédric is exceptional,” Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer gushed to the weekly Journal du Dimanche in 2018. “When one is in the presence of genius, one shouldn't pretend it were anything else. We are lucky that he exists and that he is giving of himself like this for the public good. He is a very special being in our time.”

But as time wore on, and as Villani's ambition grew, not everyone in the party would remain so enthusiastic about the value of his service.

Paris in play

In October 2018, Villani threw his hat in the nomination ring for Paris ahead of the 2020 race. “I will take part within the nominating process. Whoever is chosen, I will fall in line behind them,” he told the JDD. It was no secret then that Griveaux was in the running, too.

A longtime political operative and onetime CAC 40 executive, Griveaux was considered Macron’s right-hand-man and had long mooted a run for Paris City Hall. The 42-year-old eventually left his post as government spokesman to mount the bid. Last July, a party committee decided Griveaux was the best prepared candidate and chose him as the LREM nominee, over Villani and another hopeful. But the mathematician pondered his chances and announced in September that he was running anyway.

“Cédric Villani is what constitutes En Marche’s DNA,” a Villani associate told FRANCE 24 then. “He is a personality from civil society, a free man who had never done politics before, and who answered Emmanuel Macron’s call for the 2017 legislative elections, precisely to draw a line under the old political practices. And here we find ourselves in Paris with a candidate whose nomination was decided in advance,” the ally surmised, taking a dig at Griveaux.

Does not compute

Nonplussed party stalwarts warned Villani would split the vote. “Cédric is a mathematician, but he should be more calculating,” the longtime Macron ally Richard Ferrand, speaker of the lower-house National Assembly, told Reuters in September. “Division leads to failure. Unity means victory.”

Macron himself nevertheless let the Griveaux-Villani duel play out without interfering for five months, seemingly counting on the candidates to sort out that calculus themselves.

Finally, on January 26, a Sunday exactly seven weeks before the election’s first round, Macron summoned the Fields medallist to the Élysée to ask him to put two and two together and desist.

That same day, a poll on the Paris race appeared to make the political algebra clear. The Odoxa polling firm showed support for Griveaux at 16 percent and Villani at 10. The frontrunner Hidalgo, meanwhile, was on 23 percent. The pollster called Hidalgo “well placed for re-election [in the March 22 run-off] in every configuration that can reasonably be envisaged today” even though 57 percent of Parisians polled said they were unhappy with her record and 63 percent did not want her re-elected.

But Villani maintains that isn’t what the race for Paris is about. “The mathematician that I am with a little political experience knows that an election isn’t about arithmetic, it’s about the dynamic,” he told Le Parisien this week. “The scores don’t add together. Voters aren’t sheep.”

Indeed, the Odoxa poll also showed that while Hidalgo scored low on likeability, the conservative Rachida Dati polling second and Griveaux polling third are even less popular figures; Villani, meanwhile, registers as the most likeable candidate in the race, even if that hasn’t translated into vote pledges. Griveaux “is paying dearly for his rivalry with Villani, the government’s current unpopularity and France’s urge for a protest vote, as well as his incapacity to make himself sympathetic to voters,” Odoxa pollster Gaël Sliman explained.

“Anyway, the potential merger between Villani’s candidate list and Griveaux’s is today not at all what the ‘dissident’s’ voters want,” Sliman added. “Only 24 percent of them want such an alliance. The others would prefer either that Villani stay in the race (39 percent) or even that he merge with someone other than Griveaux (37 percent).”

Budding alliances, broken allegiances

Indeed, an alliance beyond LREM isn’t out of the question for Villani. In December, David Belliard, the green EELV party candidate for Paris, proposed a “Climate coalition” he believed could stretch from the far-left to Hidalgo and even Villani. Belliard is polling in fourth place, at 14.5 percent on the Odoxa poll; the pollster notes he is not well-known to the public but not disliked, either. The far-left categorically refused the offer. But the Villani and Hidalgo camps have entertained the notion; the sides have been talking, but the talks have so far been inconclusive. Villiani’s number might not be up in Paris, after all.

Macron’s LREM, meanwhile, is shedding allies, plumbed by disagreements far beyond who sits at the mayor’s desk in Paris City Hall. The government’s controversial handling of pension reform and an indelicate kerfuffle over legislation extending the length of bereavement leave are only the most recent existential issues unsettling the ruling party.

On Thursday, the National Assembly’s majority leader announced the LREM parliamentary group had lost three members in a single week.

One of the leaving lawmakers, 33-year-old Paula Forteza, quit in support of Villani’s Paris campaign. “We wanted to fight political machinery; we created a new one from scratch,” she lamented in a note to colleagues. Another first-time lawmaker, Frédérique Tuffnell, 63, said she remained “faithful to the spirit of Emmanuel Macron’s [2017] campaign” but “reached a point of no return” in her frustration over his controversial pension reform.

Complaining that LREM hasn’t stuck to its new-politics ethos, the disillusioned deputies aren’t the first to walk away from La République en Marche. They bring the party’s majority in the National Assembly down to an even 300 seats, from 314 on Election Day in 2017. The magic number for maintaining a majority in the French lower house is 289.

Villani, for his part, might dress like a maths magician, but it would take some real hocus pocus to make him mayor of Paris in March. Still, the genial genius must know he has one constituency he can count on. “Did you know that Paris has more mathematicians than any other city in the world?” Villani asked his TED talk audience in 2016, a full year before he won election for the first time. A beautiful coincidence?

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