Cédric Villani, the eccentric maths genius running for the Paris mayor’s office, was this week lauded for his bold and dignified response to persistent rumours suggesting he has autism. Although Villani said he has never been tested for the spectrum disorder, he firmly pushed back at the notion that autism would be a problem: “what would it change anyway?”.
In the run-up to next year’s local elections in France, Villani – a ruling party lawmaker and mayoral candidate who is just as famed for his extraordinary maths skills as he is for his flamboyant Willy Wonka-styled looks – has in recent months been increasingly targeted by internet trolls who claim he must be suffering from some sort of autism disorder.
“How many percent of autism does Cédric Villani have?,” a Twitter user going under the handle @romanicheur wrote, while another tweeted that Villani would become “Paris’s first autistic mayor” should he be elected in the March vote.
‘Are you an autist?’
As the questions surrounding Villani’s intriguing character have intensified, a journalist from the daily French news and entertainment television program “Quotidien” on Wednesday decided to ask the talented mathematician outright: “Are you personally affected by autism?”
Villani, who was dressed in a three-piece suit and wearing his signature spider brooch, remained fully composed and replied: “I don’t know, I have never been tested, and I’ve never felt the need to be tested for it, but what would it change anyway?”
Aside from his work in parliament, Villani has also carried out several consultancy missions for President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist government, including the creation of a national strategy plan for research into artificial intelligence. In 2010, he was awarded the prestigious Fields Medal, a prize often referred to as the Nobel Prize of mathematics.
Following the Quotidien broadcast, social media went wild with reactions to Villani’s response, with the majority of users hailing him for underscoring that autism shouldn’t be viewed as the obstacle it is often made out to be.
“Are your enemies trying the same ‘prevention’ method on you as they are with young Greta?,” Twitter user @jdflaysakier wrote, referring to 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg whose Asperger diagnosis is often used by climate change deniers in a bid to invalidate her arguments. “Your response is full of dignity, a word which some people have forgot the meaning of,” he continued.
@KaraNoyak tweeted that “there’s nothing shocking about talking about autism. This clarification was therefore necessary.”
Trolls 'have failed'
But some were angered by the journalist having asked the question at all, saying it was stigmatising. On Thursday, Villani therefore sent out a statement, thanking the Quotidien journalist for giving him the chance to actually respond to the speculations, saying he always prefers “frank questions to insinuations and vicious rumors.”
He added that: “A direct question on autism shouldn’t be perceived as being stigmatising, because autism shouldn’t be stigmatised.”
In an interview with FRANCE 24 on Friday, Danièle Langloys, president of the association Autisme France, said that Villani “responded to the question very well, in a very intelligent manner. This is really good for [the general perception] of autism in France.”
“Those who wanted to try to trap him in some way and invalidate him by spreading these rumours have clearly failed.”
Langloys added that whether Villani falls on the autism spectrum or not, “it is something private and no one else’s business”, noting that no one has ever questioned his political skills and his current aspirations for the mayor’s office.