Paris mayoral dissident candidate from La Republique En Marche (LREM) Cedric Villani attends a meeting to announce his candidature in the forthcoming mayoral election in Paris, France, September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier - RC1632EFAB60
Cédric Villani: 'Paris is what occupies my body and soul today' © Reuters

As President Emmanuel Macron prepares for one of the most important domestic battles of French politics — the fight for the mayoralty of Paris — his most doughty opponent is not Socialist incumbent Anne Hidalgo. It is a member of his own La République en Marche party.

Cédric Villani lost out to Mr Macron’s handpicked candidate, Benjamin Griveaux, in a primary contest to become the LREM’s candidate for the Paris race. But far from giving up, the flamboyant Mr Villani — a prizewinning mathematician — has emerged as a thorn in the president’s side, unveiling his own independent campaign that now risks splitting the LREM vote.

While the president and his party fume over the perceived treachery, Mr Villani prefers to see himself as the true keeper of LREM’s grassroots values — the sort of ground-up political rebellion that propelled Mr Macron into the Elysée Palace two years ago, when Mr Villani joined up and became an MP.

“My approach is faithful to the LREM spirit, faithful to the reasons which made me engage in LREM,” Mr Villani told the Financial Times, insisting on the “urgency” of reclaiming “what made the initial breath of LREM” — a rejection of the old political order.

Mr Villani’s fledgling campaign ahead of next year’s election is showing early signs of traction. According to a September survey by Ipsos/Sopra Steria for Le Figaro and LCI, he already has 15 per cent support — not far behind the 24 per cent backing Ms Hidalgo and the 19 per cent of Mr Griveaux.

The emerging struggle to take on Ms Hidalgo — mayor since 2014 — is a study in contrasts. Mr Griveaux, born within days of Mr Macron and steeped in centre-left politics, is a technocratic apparatchik and close ally of the president, and served as his government spokesman until this year. Mr Villani, 44, prefers to appeal to Paris’s intellectual classes with anti-establishment charisma: he is instantly recognisable for his signature three-piece suit, with a pocket watch and a penchant for spider brooches.

Both Mr Macron and his critics know that next year’s municipal elections are an important test. They are the first domestic vote since the political upheaval of 2017, when Mr Macron, a former economy minister in François Hollande’s socialist party, broke away from his one-time mentor and shook up the established order with a cross-party start-up movement, bringing a swath of novice MPs — including Mr Villani — into parliament in his wake.

But Mr Villani argues that the ensuing two-and-a-half years show how difficult it is for a grassroots movement to retain its anti-establishment spirit once it is in power. Mr Macron’s presidency has emerged as one of the most centralised in French postwar history. Critics argue that his “Jupiterian” style and top-down way of governing are incompatible with his promise of democratic renewal.

LREM “is not especially more virtuous” than other parties, Mr Villani said. “It quickly succumbed to the flaws of the other parties. This must be taken as a warning signal.”

Mr Villani grew up in south-west France, the son of two literature professors. He studied at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure and became a household name in France in 2010 when he won the Fields Medal — often described as the Nobel Prize of the maths world. In Mr Macron’s landslide parliamentary win in 2017, Mr Villani was elected as an MP for Essonne, near Paris, and later advised the government on its artificial intelligence strategy.

Now he could scarcely be more at odds with the party he used to represent. While Mr Griveaux insists Mr Villani “does not stand a chance”, Mr Villani has questioned his rival’s legitimacy after he was nominated as the LREM candidate by a small committee rather than in a party-wide vote.

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He says many of his supporters are people who backed LREM from the beginning and have moved their allegiances to his independent campaign, rather than to Mr Griveaux.

“They are not [committing] treason by following me, but on the contrary [showing] loyalty to the values of En Marche,” said Mr Villani — who claims Montesquieu, Mandela and the pope as political heroes.

As mayor over the past five years, Ms Hidalgo has waged a war on cars as she has fought for a greener Paris — but her initiatives to make it more accessible for pedestrians and cyclists provoked ire among motorists, who complained the French capital had become a giant construction site.

Mr Villani also espouses a greener, cleaner and more innovative Paris, hailing his own background as an advantage. “Today, politics needs technical and scientific expertise more than ever,” he said. 

He has called for a tax on second homes, and tighter regulation of rental platforms such as Airbnb, which critics blame for squeezing the housing supply in the capital.

But he insists that he will only reveal his full manifesto after he has had the chance for a full debate with Parisians themselves — something else he sees as true to the original LREM spirit.

“A proposal, even if it is made by the best experts, does not make sense and only gains strength when it has been tried, discussed on the ground, debated with the inhabitants,” said Mr Villani, who dismissed suggestions of even wider political ambitions. “Paris is what occupies my body and soul today.” 

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