A mathematician wants to upend French politics. Can he win Paris?

It’s a cold, early February evening in Paris, and the Trianon theatre is jam-packed. About a thousand men and women of all ages have raucously filled the orchestra pit and balconies, not intimidated by the red velvets and sumptuous Belle Epoque decor. Most of them look like upper middle class, the kind of people you would run into in a downtown bookstore, or, well, at the theatre. They seem excited: many of them are wielding colourful banners and singing chants as they wait for their man to show up. There is less than a month and a half to go before the election for mayor of Paris, and Cédric Villani is presenting his plan for the French capital.

He has arrived. The mathematician-turned-politician is wearing the usual three-piece suit and his trademark spider-shaped lapel pin. At 46, Villani is a tall, slender man with piercing eyes and a carefully trimmed beard. As soon as he appears, his supporters erupt in a rockstar welcome, jumping from their seats and shouting “Paris Villani!” (it rhymes in French) while trying to capture the moment on their smartphones. When he starts speaking, his delivery is somewhat hesitant, even awkward at times, and yet it conveys a mesmerising clarity of mind. “I am a humanist scientist,” he proudly tells the audience. That’s his pitch to voters in a nutshell: bolstering the city’s governance with a dose of scientific expertise, leaving the partisan bickering behind and using technology to tackle Paris’s problems. “Calling for innovative solutions doesn’t mean turning people into slaves of technology, it means handing them its keys.”

The elections in the French capital are much more than a local poll. The mayor of Paris is a political heavyweight at the national level, and in the past the office has been used as an effective springboard to the presidency. But today, Paris is a troubled city. It has become one of the epicentres of the “yellow vest” protests against economic inequality, which have often escalated into violent clashes with the police in the city’s central districts. The winter of 2019-2020 was marred by weeks of paralysing public transport walkouts against the government’s sweeping pension reform.

The capital is also afflicted by soaring house prices (which have topped an average €11,000 or £9,650, per square metre, higher than London’s £6,219), severe air pollution and a spike in various categories of serious crimes, including rapes and burglaries. Many Parisians also complain about the streets’ dirtiness – with a rat population that’s growing bigger and bolder. And of course, like the rest of the world, the city is now grappling with the spread of coronavirus – until just a few days before the first round on 15 March, there were speculations that the government would postpone local elections across France due to the health crisis.

As he seeks to persuade voters to give him a chance to tackle these problems, Villani faces some fearsome rivals. The race has so far been dominated by incumbent socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo and right-wing candidate Rachida Dati. Trailing behind them in the polls is the ruling party’s Agnès Buzyn – hurriedly thrown into the campaign in February to replace Benjamin Griveaux, who had to withdraw over the release of an embarrassing sex tape. Also ahead of Villani, and vying, at least in part, for the same electoral base, is green candidate David Belliard. Can Villani make it?

Demonstrators gather near the Arc de Triomphe during gilets jaunes or “yellow vests” protests in Paris in December 2018

AFP via Getty Images

Cédric Villani is one of the country’s best-known intellectuals: awarded the coveted Fields medal in mathematics in 2010, he has taught at prestigious universities in France and abroad. He first ran for office in 2017, when he won a seat in parliament under the banner of President Emmanuel Macron’s new party, La République en Marche (LREM). As an MP, his focus has been mostly on the intersection between science and politics. Over the first months of his mandate he wrote Macron’s artificial intelligence strategy and drafted a plan to improve the teaching of mathematics in French schools. He has also been busy reforming the Parliamentary Scientific Office, a bureau that produces technical analyses on a wide variety of issues to help MPs and senators in their legislative work.

When it comes to Paris, Villani imagines a smarter city orchestrated by new technologies: artificial intelligence would be used to manage traffic flows, rapidly direct street cleaning and waste disposal services wherever needed, and map the public areas requiring maintenance. A new augmented reality app would give tourists access to information on the history of the city’s streets and monuments on their smartphones as they walk by. The app would include multimedia content on movies, artworks and novels about Paris, and it would also suggest original itineraries based on customised criteria – with the goal of promoting especially the less well-known neighbourhoods.

But Villani’s manifesto, which he labels as “eco-progressive”, also includes longer-term projects such as a €5 billion (£4.3 billion) investment to make Paris less polluted and more sustainable. That would include modernising the metro network and boosting public transportation, expanding bike lanes, and stepping up renovations to make buildings less energy-consuming. Villani also intends to battle inequality (particularly in education, reducing the school quality gap between the wealthiest and the poorest neighbourhoods) and strengthen the ties between Paris and its suburbs to tackle the scarcity of affordable housing.

Another major section of his programme is about “giving power back to the Parisians” by introducing new forms of citizen participation in the city’s governance. Ten percent of the candidates for the city council on his lists are simple residents with no previous political affiliation, selected at random from a pool of people that registered online – a move that vaguely resembles the early days of Italy’s Five Star Movement. He also pledged to hold referendums on issues including school hours and major urban development projects. Finally, Villani intends to create a “citizens’ assembly”, half of which would be made up of ordinary citizens, the other half comprising experts, scientists, NGO and trade union representatives. This “agora”, as he calls it in a reference to Ancient Greece’s public square, wouldn’t simply be an advisory body: it would evaluate the local government’s performance in reducing greenhouse emissions and have a say on which issues the city council should discuss.

Despite this abundance of visionary ideas, Villani’s bid to become mayor of Paris faces an uphill battle. When we meet for an interview in a café in Southern Paris, nine days ahead of the election’s first round on March 15, polls still have him lagging in fifth position, over 15 percentage points behind Anne Hidalgo and Rachida Dati. He orders a café crème, asks a volunteer to get him a pastry (mindful of the importance of calorie intake on the campaign trail, she comes back with three).

The past months have been tough: “Falsehoods spreading around, things that we had denied but kept popping up: it’s unbelievable,” Villani says. “Political gimmicks kept getting in the way. There is now more interest in the programmes, but this only started very recently. By the end of the campaign, the debate on what actually matters will have lasted less than a month.”

It’s the frustration of a scientist who won’t fully adapt to the rules of politics, hoping to change them instead. Ideologically he is probably closer to the left than to the right, but he stubbornly rejects to be defined by such categories, arguing that partisanship has stymied the search for effective solutions. “The left-versus-right logic has failed, over the past few decades, to put us on a path to progress,” he argues. With the climate emergency looming, he is convinced that, in the French capital, “there is room for a coalition, a convergence of pro-environment stances from both the centre-left and the centre-right; a common ground that would satisfy a majority of Parisians”.

Perhaps naively, probably in good faith, Villani doesn’t seem to believe that policies create winners and losers; in his opinion, good policies “suit everyone”. To reach that sweet spot, though, politics should be reinvented as a consensual process in which citizens participate directly, albeit enlightened by expert analysis. “My job, as a scientist who believes in the passing-on of knowledge, is to help people think.” His “agora” would be the setting for this exchange, offering an answer to the “hunger for debate” among the citizenry that emerged, as he has often noted, when Macron took part in a series of public discussions last year in response to the “yellow vest” crisis. The “yellow vests” movement itself rose up against a planned fuel price hike, and while Villani has condemned the violence in the past, he has also acknowledged that the new carbon tax should have been paired with more redistributive measures, and its revenues should have been earmarked only for efforts to protect the environment.

Villani announced his candidacy for the Paris mayoral elections at a brasserie in the French capital in September 2019


All this – repudiation of the traditional left-right divide, pragmatism, a larger role for the expertise coming from the civil society – puts Villani’s approach in line with “Macronism”, or at least with what Macronism used to be. During his 2017 campaign, the soon-to-be French President successfully presented his movement as a breath of fresh air, a tidal wave that would shake up the old establishment. Villani jumped on board, becoming one of the most prominent examples of the supposed renewal of the political class. The campaign for Mayor of Paris, however, has brought the rapport with Macron to an end. After a LREM committee opted for Benjamin Griveaux as the party’s official candidate for Mayor, last July, Villani refused to withdraw from the race, launching an independent bid that is splitting the Macronist electorate. In January, Villani was expelled from the party.

Many observers agree that since the 2017 election, Macron’s centrist project has moved to the right. But according to Luc Rouban, a political scientist from Sciences Po university in Paris, the main reason behind Villani’s departure has more to do with the power dynamics within the majority. LREM, which at first was seen by many as a horizontal movement founded on participation and internal democracy, quickly became “very authoritarian and hierarchical,” he says. This generated tensions as early as 2018, when “some of the LREM MPs started protesting against this authority coming from the top, namely from the government.” In this context “Villani distanced himself from the party machinery, to organise on the local level a form of modern democracy, participative and high-tech.”

This endeavour’s fortunes will depend on what people think of the candidate’s background, which in France’s political landscape is quite unique. In France, “scientists often become advisors to politicians, but they remain largely unknown,” points out Rouban. “One of them running for an elected office as important as Mayor of Paris, that’s really something new.”

To some voters, Villani’s profile is a great asset. That’s the general opinion among his supporters gathered for a campaign event at a cosy restaurant in Paris’s 18th district, in mid-February.

“I find him authentic,” says Cloé, a 29-year-old real estate agent. In 2017 she voted for Macron, now she is almost sure that she will go for Villani. His being a scientist “is important, because it means a different way of thinking, a different kind of intelligence than someone who has studied politics, for example.” Claude, a retired engineer, has a similar view: “For me, Villani’s scientific experience is his most important quality,” he says, convinced that the mathematician is the right man to revitalise the City of Light’s cultural and intellectual splendour: “For too long Paris has been mired in politics; it is important that we leave that behind.”

Villani’s peculiar profile, however, also comes with problems. He says that his independent bid will shield him from partisan games and allow him to get things done, but the day-to-day business of running a city like Paris may prove challenging for an utter outsider. “You have to be diplomatic, negotiate, forge alliances and therefore accept ideas a long way from yours,” says Rouban: “It’s a different job, it isn’t simply an equation. In politics, equations never work.”

On top of that, in times of rampant populism and hostility towards the elites, doesn’t Villani also risk being flat-out rebuffed by a sizeable chunk of the electorate? “Populism goes hand in hand with the rejection of science and scientific rationality in the name of ‘common sense’,” Rouban continues. Villani’s profile is a double-edged sword: a strength with well-educated upper and middle class voters, but also a potential weakness when it comes to the working class. The good news for Villani is that he hardly needs the latter: “In Paris there’s a concentration of residents from the higher, better-educated echelons of society,” Rouban notes. Due to the sky-rocketing real estate prices many poor “migrated to the suburbs a long time ago.”

Not everybody is impressed by the scientist’s idea to trust technology and mathematical models – à-la-Cummings – to solve the city’s problems. “What matters is being in touch with the people,” said Martinho, a binman who recognised Villani in the street and had a brief exchange with him during one of the candidate’s visits to the North of the capital: “Sure, you have to consider the technical side of things, but also the reality on the ground, the human side.” (Martinho does not live in Paris proper and won’t be able to vote in the mayoral election.)

Generally speaking, however, Villani seems good at connecting with all sorts of people – including those whose background couldn’t be farther from his. This talent was on full display, for example, at the International Agricultural Show. Every year, hundreds of exhibitors from France and beyond flock to this major Parisian fair to showcase their culinary products, wines and livestock to a large public hunting for free tastings and day-drinking opportunities. This is also a much-awaited chance for French politicians to flaunt their comfortable-with-the-real-country skills, and Villani was no exception: he met with farmers, was asked to take selfies, stepped onto patches of straw to pat all sorts of bovines. And whether or not they knew who he was, the workers he chatted with seemed to appreciate this waistcoat-wearing man, who stopped by to inquire about their businesses and their home regions.

Yet there’s a big difference between vaguely liking someone and voting for them, and Cédric Villani’s campaign is in trouble in the polls. Despite his efforts to bring more complexity to the table, the run-up to the election has been largely dominated by straightforward issues such as the streets’ dirtiness and crime; security in particular has polarised the debate along a very traditional left-right divide, which the mathematician, with his compromise proposal of a new local police force only partially armed with guns, doesn’t seem to have managed to bridge.

But even if the chances of Villani becoming Mayor of Paris are minimal, his efforts won’t necessarily be wasted. The complex, two-round election system in the French capital leaves plenty of room for last-minute coalition talks ahead of the runoff. As the frontrunners frantically seek to expand their support, smaller fish often wind up having disproportionate leverage. Villani hasn’t unveiled his strategy, but he is already being courted left and right.

“Together, my dear friends, we are going to turn the City of Light back on!” he proclaimed from the Trianon stage, to the audience’s cheers, as he launched his manifesto. The City of Light may not be ready to have a scientist at the helm just yet, but Cédric Villani will make his voice heard nonetheless.

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