Friday, 20 May 2022

Mythic Churchill

 

Priyamvada Gopal is a fellow of Churchill College and professor of postcolonial studies at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of “Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent” (Verso) 

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On the back cover of Tariq Ali’s new book on Winston Churchill, a less flattering and so less familiar portrait of the wartime icon comes into view. Here, the man voted the Greatest Briton ever by over a million of his compatriots in 2002 fulminates against everything from women’s suffrage and liberal causes to “international Jews,” “uncivilised tribes” and “people with slit eyes and pigtails.” Ali also alludes to Churchill’s approval of the Conservative slogan “Keep England White”—at the same time MPs like Fenner Brockway were bringing the Race Discrimination Bill to parliament—and includes an extract from the cringeworthy praise he heaped on Mussolini in 1927. Such pronouncements will not be new to anyone familiar with the subject, but to invoke them in rarefied British company is usually to elicit the dismissive claim that they are not representative of Churchill or that they were simply “of their time.” “Nobody’s perfect” goes the more casual response, as if a view of the world in which Anglo-Saxons were “a higher grade race” entitled to rule the rest was simply a charming upper-class foible.

Nobody’s perfect, indeed, but not everyone had the power to make such a worldview consequential for the lives of millions of people across the globe, often lethally so. At the heart of Ali’s account is this historical reality, one that is evaded in Britain today in favour of a burnished and bullish mythology in which both Churchill and his beloved British Empire emerge with untarnished courage and virtue. The “cult of Churchill” is a full-blown devotional practice, where anyone who demurs is met at the very least with shock and, more probably, tabloid denunciation. “Mythic Churchill,” as some historians have recently argued, has become a “serious fact of modern life” in Britain, “a constant point of reference in political discussion and popular culture,” and, one might add, in the culture wars constantly fomented by politicians.

For Ali, this fact impinges seriously on our ability to reckon clearly with Britain’s past. The cult itself, however, is of relatively recent vintage, assuming its quasi-religious nature during the Falklands conflict in 1982. One of the more astonishingly successful legacies of this propaganda exercise is the ongoing presentation of Churchill, a man of the hard right by any measure, as a figure who transcends political partisanship. This handy fudge enables the presentation of elite Conservative projects as above party politics. No matter how damaging the policy, we are always “all in it together.”

Ironically, Churchill in his own time was far from a unifying figure, famously booted out of office at the end of the conflict that contributes so much to his legend. Prior to the Second World War, Churchill’s career consisted of two related planks, Ali writes: “glorifying colonial atrocities abroad” and “suppressing working-class revolts at home.” Today the British media celebrates his imperialism while quietly consigning his domestic record to a collective amnesia.

Yet working-class communities, especially in Wales, have not forgotten what their grandparents and great-grandparents endured at Churchill’s hands, particularly during his time as home secretary in 1910. Ali cites the actor Richard Burton’s revulsion for Churchill as a “bad man… a vindictive toy soldier child,” a perception embedded in his psyche during his Welsh childhood. A wartime leader Churchill may have become, but on many occasions, from Tonypandy in 1910 to Clydeside in 1919, and during the general strike of 1926, to mention but a few, “Churchill treated his own citizens as enemies,” writes Ali, willing to send in troops to manage “skirmishes on the home front.” 

Churchill deemed anticolonialism to be a wilful refusal of “superior science and a superior law”

Even as he switched between Liberal and Tory affiliations, Churchill was consistently hostile to the rise of Labourism. In Britain today, the separation of domestic working-class memories from imperial history is a political sleight-of-hand to which Churchill is central, made to “play a particular role.” Even so, the people whom he led into a necessary war “supported him till the first opportunity arose to get rid of him, which they promptly did.”

In Ali’s telling, which draws on more honest existing historical scholarship than most popular biographies of Churchill, the two-times prime minister emerges not so much as deeply racist—some of his contemporaries remarked on it in shock—as profoundly authoritarian, with a soft spot for fascist strongmen, and a hostility to working-class assertion. It is no accident that in his time, as well as ours, rubbishing any criticism of empire goes hand in hand with assaults on the welfare state and trade unionism. Indeed, British critics of empire from Ernest Jones and Wilfrid Blunt to Sylvia Pankhurst and Nancy Cunard would note that colonial subjects abroad and working-class ones at home were both preyed on by the same exploitative and profiteering interests presented as merely “national” in scope.

For Ali, Churchill’s life is a lens through which to view a less glorious counter-history of empire than those histories generally lionised in Britain. On Churchill’s own life and tendencies, the book is at its strongest in the early chapters, where it details the young aristocrat’s reputation in his milieu as a “self-advertiser” and “medal hunter” possessed of a “vainglorious” enthusiasm for colonial conflicts, including the barbarities of the white-on-white Boer War. The British concentration camps in South Africa, which Hitler is known to have admired, find no mention in Churchill’s own copious account of that war.

The Duke of Marlborough’s scion had an unlimited enthusiasm for colonial wars, most of which involved the use of questionable, if not criminal, “counter-insurgency” tactics against resistant colonial subjects. The terrors of the First World War, about which Ali is unsurprisingly scathing, afforded Churchill not a fulfilment of his “desire to excel at military strategy” but the humiliating naval disaster at Gallipoli in the Dardanelles. Churchill also created the notorious paramilitary “Black and Tans,” which recruited unemployed veterans of the Great War to tame insurgency in Ireland, the only anticolonial uprising to take place close to home and the legacy of which is still with us today. Surprisingly, this gets only a passing mention in Ali’s -account, which otherwise discusses the Irish colonial situation in some detail.

The cult of Churchill is, of course, bound up less with his imperial legacy but his role in the Allied and Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany. For Churchill’s hagiographers, this is touted as negating his “flaws” in relation to the duskier peoples of the world. In actuality, both the British Empire and Nazi Germany were invested in white supremacy and a global race hierarchy, commitments that Churchill did not bother to hide. But was the wartime leader at least a committed antifascist? Ali evokes a man who was, in fact, rather admiring of both Mussolini and Hitler, at least until 1937 and, after the war, willing to support fascists in Spain, Greece and elsewhere against leftists and what he deemed “the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.” Indeed, he would state openly that if it was a choice between communism and Nazism, he would not choose the former.

Ali cites the New Leader, the sternly antifascist and often anticolonial newspaper of the Independent Labour Party, commenting in 1927 on Churchill’s praise for what he deemed “the commanding leadership of Signor Mussolini”: “we always suspected that Mr Winston Churchill was a fascist at heart. Now he has openly avowed it.” Although he was not alone among Conservatives in this regard, Churchill’s enthusiasm for the Italian strongman, who even at this time was recognised as an unsavoury danger, upset the eminently moderate editor of the Guardian, CP Scott, who was also less than approving of Churchill’s own willingness to deploy troops to quell domestic dissent.

“Churchill saw fascism,” Ali writes, “as an extra-parliamentary current with its own armed bands that could defeat the communists.” He is absolutely correct that fascism emerged as a force “prepared to defend capitalism and landlordism by illegal, violent and extraconstitutional methods,” that “it was created to destroy and defeat the left,” and that it “would not have triumphed had the dominant classes refused their financial and political support.” What about Hitler, the danger of whom Churchill did come to recognise before many fellow British politicians, including other Conservatives? Churchill was “the only serious ruling-class politician who understood by late 1938 that a failure to resist the Third Reich would lead to disaster, first for the British Empire and then for Europe.” Before then, however, he had expressed admiration for Hitler’s passionate nationalism and his success in “restoring Germany to the most powerful position in Europe.” Contrary to wider perception of his prescience today, Churchill did not initially dissent from Neville Chamberlain’s soft foreign policy approach to the Third Reich, or indeed “appeasement,” important though it was that he broke from this approach in time.

Once he had established the danger posed by Hitler, Churchill was rightly implacable in a war for European liberation. The unfree subjects of the empire were, however, not consulted before being brought into the war alongside Britain, an “avoidable error” that Indian nationalists, for instance, refused to countenance without protest, although there were differences among them too. This set in motion the final set of manoeuvres and negotiations that would eventually lead to the end of the British Raj and the liquidation of most of the empire, much to Churchill’s fury. His attitude to Indians, always hostile, took on even more intemperate form leading the Conservative secretary of state for India, Leo Amery, to remark: “on the subject of India, Winston is not quite sane… I don’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s.” Already, many anticolonialists across Africa, Asia and the Caribbean had asked why they should tolerate the British Empire’s racialised subjugation when they were being asked to oppose Hitler’s racist imperialism.

Combined with his rage at challenges to the British Empire, Churchill’s racial thinking had often fatal consequences for the colonised. Nowhere is that more starkly visible than in his callous and criminal response to the entirely avoidable catastrophe that was the Bengal Famine. Between 1942 and 1944, several million Bengalis died of preventable hunger and illness, and from the British Raj’s failure to provide palliative emergency measures. While scholars of South Asia recognise that multiple factors resulted in the cataclysmic loss of life—including Indian hoarding of grains, profiteering and differential “entitlements” to relief—there is little doubt that Churchill’s stubborn racial loathing of the subjects of the Raj played a role in the unfolding of “one of the greatest disasters that had befallen any people under British rule,” as Indian viceroy Archibald Wavell himself put it.

Wavell’s correspondence with the India Office, and with Churchill, makes for startling reading. The viceroy, hardly a left-wing firebrand, pleaded for relief measures, while the prime minister mocked the Indian birth rate (at a banquet!) and inquired why, if the famine was so bad, Gandhi had not died yet. Ali assigns collective responsibility for the catastrophe to the British Cabinet in London while also observing, correctly, that Indian elites were “accessories” to the crime—a fact that is often forgotten by modern Indian politicians expounding on the Bengal Famine today.

The later chapters of the book are concerned with a range of imperial misdeeds in which Churchill and his milieu were implicated—from the use of atomic bombs against Japan, regime change in Iran, backing French colonial violence in Vietnam and unleashing civil war in Greece, where in the latter Churchill is “still regarded by older generations… as a tyrant and a butcher.” In Churchill’s varied career, one potent ideology is consistently manifest: the entitlement of elites—specifically upper-class and wealthy white men—to rule women, the working classes and the darker peoples. Again, the man himself was not coy about stating this—insisting, for instance, that the indigenes of North America and the Aborigines of Australia had not been wronged in their dispossession by the “stronger race” and “more worldly-wise” Europeans. He would claim to a somewhat disapproving US vice-president, Henry Wallace, that there was no need to be “apologetic about Anglo-Saxon superiority.”

Anticolonial nationalism was deemed by Churchill to be a wilful refusal of “superior science and a superior law” by lesser breeds. Accordingly, he described the inhabitants of Palestine, not keen on having their lands expropriated under a British mandate, as the “dog in the manger” who had no final right to it though “he may have lain there for a very long time.” Others, like the Iraqi Kurds, were deemed suitable for “poison gas” by virtue of being “uncivilised.”

Perhaps the most infamous 20th-century British counter-insurgency took place in Kenya, targeting “naked savages,” as Churchill dubbed the Kikuyu. The resistance that fuelled the “Mau Mau” began under a Labour government, which failed to start the decolonisation process, as Ali notes, but the brutal emergency was declared in 1952, after Churchill had been returned to office. The landscape was then dotted with a network of hellish detention camps in which thousands were tortured and died; cover-ups took place, most notoriously in Hola detention camp, where 11 detainees were beaten to death.

Despite the long charge-sheet, Ali’s book is ultimately less about Churchill’s own “crimes” than an ideological cartography of the imperial-national story in which he emerges as both a leading actor and icon. In that sense, the book tries to answer the question what is Churchill, rather than laying out who he was. The book is often digressive without ever seeming irrelevant—although the reader does occasionally find themselves wanting more on the man himself.

There is undoubtedly further work and primary research to be done on excavating Churchill’s copious archives, housed at Churchill College, Cambridge. The college stands as a national memorial to the wartime prime minister, but timidity there hinders an honest engagement with history. A year ago, pursuant to ferocious media and political attacks, including from members of the Churchill family, a series intended to take a critical look at Churchill’s relationship to race and empire that I was involved in as a fellow of the college, was summarily suspended by the college administration. Speakers at an event just prior to the suspension, including me, were subjected to attacks in the media as well as threatening hate mail.

As a man who famously insisted that history would be kind to him because he would write it, Churchill would be pleased at the policed glow around his image, the “media conformity” alone being “beyond his wildest dreams.” For those of us not content with self-serving political biographies by aspirants to the dubious adjective “Churchillian,” more exacting engagements with Churchill and history remain welcome.

Sunday, 15 May 2022

Jean Paul Gaultier: ‘I love the eccentricity and the freedom of England’

Conical bras, striped sailor tops and gender-neutral designs… Jean Paul Gaultier has been in fashion for more than 50 years. He has dressed Madonna, Björk and Lady Gaga, and was elevated to cult status in the 1990s as the co-presenter of Channel 4’s Eurotrash, with Antoine de Caunes. The French designer recently turned 70, and his wild, eventful life will be celebrated in a song-and-dance cabaret, Fashion Freak Show, at the Roundhouse in London this summer.

Have you always had a strong connection with the UK?
Yes! The first time I came to England, to London, it was like somewhere very close to Paris, but completely different. The people, the architecture, the weather, the spirit. It was beginning of the 1970s, so I saw Tommy the movie, The Rocky Horror Show, the punks. For me, it was something incredible; nobody else but the English could do something like that. I love the eccentricity and the freedom. Whereas in France we are a little bourgeois: there’s no sense of humour, no sense of self-criticism. You have always to be so nice and so elegant. Truly, I hate that, and I love that in England there is a contrast: fantasy is completely accepted.

Was there anything about the UK you didn’t like?
At the beginning, the food was not good. Now it’s very good – it has been for many years – but before it was only Indian and Chinese restaurants where it was OK. The rest was absolutely disgusting. But it changed, everything changed, so now you have the perfect 12 points to England. No, that is wrong that they didn’t give you any points for Eurovision.

You’re a big Eurovision fan. Why have the UK done so badly in recent years?
It’s sad but it’s politics. Because OK, the 2021 song [James Newman’s Embers] was not one of the greatest, but it was not that bad. And to make zero, I think it’s because of Brexit or something like that, which is quite disgusting.

You were already very well known as a fashion designer when you started presenting Eurotrash in the 1990s. Was that a fun break from your day job?
My first collection was in 1976, and in 1990 my boyfriend [Francis Menuge] died. And that truly was a moment where I felt I was missing one arm, or two arms actually. So I had the proposition of Antoine de Caunes [to present Eurotrash in 1994] but I tell him: “I am not a presenter. I don’t know how to speak.” And he says: “No problem. You just have to be yourself.” Bon, which was meaning maybe the gay one! So after I realised that it was him and me, but very French, so: let’s do it. And I think it was funny.

After 50 years in the business you presented your final haute couture show in 2020. Do you miss fashion?More recently you have been a judge on the French version of Strictly Come DancingOh, that was a big mistake. I don’t regret it but I didn’t like it. I thought I should have loved to do it, because I have been a fan some time of the programme, but you had to critique [the dancers] and give some advice, which is not my cup of tea. They have to do what they feel, and I am not able to say technically what they have to do.

Oh, not at all, no! I like to do things about fashion but I don’t want to do fittings any more. So if somebody asks me to make an exhibition about a subject like denim or corsetry, I would love to do that. And that’s why I did the Fashion Freak Show, because I was getting to 50 years of fashion and I like to express myself about it.

What should the audience expect from the Fashion Freak Show?
For the show, they will see a little of my life. Actually, not a little, but it’s my life without the detail, explaining how a little boy, from a very good grandmother, dressed his teddy bear with the conic bra when he was seven years old, long before Madonna!

Madonna famously wore that conical bra on her 1990 Blond Ambition tour. Is it true that you proposed marriage to her?
Oh yes, two or three times. But always no, no, no.

What would you have done if she’d said yes?
I would have realised, I suppose: “Oh my God, what did I ask?” She was such a strong woman. I remember the first time I saw her: it was on Top of the Pops and she was singing Holiday and I thought she was English. I remember thinking: “Oh that one, she’s good, how she dresses, and the music is nice, I like her.” But she was American! I was surprised that an American can dress like that.

Throughout your career you picked unconventional models, with diverse ages and body types. Did that feel radical when you did it?
I wanted to show that there is a lot of beauty in difference. There is not only one type of beauty. I have always loved difference – maybe because I was different myself, in some way. So I didn’t want the models that were so professional. I prefer to see girls that I saw in a club, like for example in Le Palace [the Studio 54 of Paris], which is where the French punks went. I didn’t want Parisian chic. I wanted the opposite girl: the modern girl.

Your clothes are a big part of the current revival of 90s fashion, being worn by the likes of Zendaya and Kendall Jenner. Do you feel proud that your work remains relevant?
Very proud. It means that I didn’t make mistake! But also I didn’t make only fast fashion, fashion that only lasts one season, things that come and go. And I have pleasure to see that. Even though I don’t want to make any more collections myself, my idea to take a different designer each season [to reinterpret Jean Paul Gaultier designs] is going very well. I see even the wife of Willy Smith was wearing one of the dresses, the green dress is a Gaultier with [Y/Project’s] Glenn Martens.

The dress Jada Pinkett Smith wore at the Oscars?
Yes! Normally in theatre, green is bad luck. [Laughs] But he wins the award!

Thursday, 5 May 2022

Nos lacunes en maths : une bombe à retardement pour nous tous

 Amandine Hirou

Le parallèle étonnera les traumatisés des équations.« Les mathématiques sont comparables à une œuvre d’art », insiste Gilles Haéri, le patron des éditions Albin Michel. En 2015, l’homme de lettres a coécrit un essai avec le philosophe Alain Badiou, intitulé justement Eloge des mathématiques (Flammarion). Dans l’ouvrage, le professeur émérite à l’Ecole normale supérieure proposait lui aussi unrapprochement étonnant: « J’ai souvent comparé les mathématiques à la promenade en montagne, écrivait-il. La marche d’approche est longue et pénible, avec beaucoup de tournants, de raidillons, on croit être arrivé, mais il reste encore un tournant... On sue, on peine, mais quand on arrive au col, la récompense est sans égale, vraiment: ce saisissement, cette beauté finale des mathématiques, absolument singulière. »

Oui, il y a des Français qui adorent les maths. Mais ils sont aussi de plus en plus nombreux à s’en éloigner. En 2021, après la mise en place de la réforme du lycée et du bac, seuls 59 % des élèves de terminale suivaient encore un enseignement des mathématiques... au lieu de 90 % auparavant ! Depuis, le président Emmanuel Macron a promis de redonner toute sa place à cette science exacte dans le tronccommun.Une «rustine » insuffisante pour stopper l’hémorragie, rétorquent ceux qui alertent depuis des mois.Voir des années. En 2019, l’enquête internationale Trendsin International Mathematics and Science Study, menée sous l’égide d’institutions publiques de plus de 60 pays, classait les élèves français derniers de l’Union européenne – avec des résultats similaires àceux de la Roumanie – et avant-derniers des pays de l’OCDE, juste devant le Chili.

De nombreuses tribunes de spécialistes s’inquiètent des conséquences économiques de nos lacunes. Les chefs d’entreprise montent au créneau. En février dernier, lors de la présentation des propositions des patrons pour la présidentielle, le président du Medef Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux s’est dit préoccupé par cet affaiblissement et le recul du nombre d’heures consacrées à la science de Pythagore. Une « réintroduction massive » de l’enseignement mathématique, scientifique et technologique permettrait, selon lui, d’augmenter de 30 % en cinq ans le nombre d’ingénieurs diplômés et de faire face à la pénurie actuelle. « Dans un proche avenir, le manque risque d’être encore plus criant dans certains domaines comme celui du nucléaire que la France est en train de réactiver et pour lequel on aurait besoin de 4 000 ingénieurs supplémentaires », avance Jacques Fayol, président de la Conférence des directeurs des écoles françaises d’ingénieurs. Les secteurs classiques comme le BTP, le ferroviaire, l’automobile, l’aéronautique ont évidemment toujours besoin de « matheux ».Les filières d’avenir aussi. Le numérique, le big data, l’intelligence artificielle, la cybersécurité ou la robotique: tous ces secteurs sont menacés de pénuries de compétences.

Le secteur de la santé a également de plus en plus recours à la réalité virtuelle. « Cette technologie aide à enseigner lesgestes de réanimation ou à apprendre àutiliser un défibrillateur », signale Marc Rumeau, président de la Société des ingénieurs et scientifiques de France. Les assistants médicalisés, disponibles via son smartphone,pourront permettre de pallier certains manques de médecins. Mais les compétences scientifiques sont requises par bon nombre d’autres corps de métier. Une infirmière, qui exerce à l’hôpital, ne peut se permettre d’avoir des lacunes lorsqu’il s’agit de faire une dissolution ou de convertir des centilitres en millilitres. C’est bien simple, dans la vie quotidienne comme dans la vie professionnelle, les maths sont partout. « Pour comprendre la Terre et l’Univers, pour explorer la Lune et l’Antarctique, les maths sont indispensables. Dans l’art et la musique, il y a des maths. Pour protéger la planète et le réchauffement climatique, la transition énergétique s’appuiera sur des maths », avance un collectif de 50 polytechniciennes signataires d’une tribune destinée à promouvoir la discipline auprès des jeunes filles.

« Il faut revendiquer un statut spécial des mathématiques, va jusqu’à dire Gilles Haéri. Car elles sont la seule matière qui puisse nous apprendre les règles du raisonnement, de la rigueur, de la démonstration,c’est-à-dire une grammaire de la pensée indispensable à toutes les autres disciplines. » Marc Rumeau, lui, compare souvent les maths à « un couteau suisse »: « Que vous fassiez de la gestion, du marketing, du commerce, vous aurez besoin, à un moment donné, de connaissances plus ou moins poussées. » Même les sciences où il enseigne, avait intégré cette urgence dans son programme de campagne. « Il est impossible aujourd’hui de concevoir la formation des élites sans intégrer une formation, solide et obligatoire en mathématiques mais aussi en sciences de la vie comme la biologie », argumente-t-il.

Souvent présentées comme étant un langage universel, les mathématiques seraient également d’un grand secours... dans le monde de la diplomatie. « Au sortir d’un conflit, lorsqu’il s’agit de renouer des relations avec un autre pays, ce sont bien souvent des mathématiciens, ou du moins des scientifiques,que l’on envoie »,raconte Emmanuel Trélat. Qui mieux qu’eux pour développer desprogrammes de recherche internationaux, des encadrements communs de thèses, deséchanges d’étudiants? Les maths ont bel et bien le pouvoir de dépasser la barrière de la langue, comme l’accueil d’élèves ukrainiens en France, depuis le début de la guerre, l’a une fois de plus démontré. Inutile d’avoi rrecours à un vocabulaire très développé pour plancher sur des fractions ou résoudre des équations. Nombreux sont d’ailleurs les enseignants à vanter, ces derniers temps, l’avance de ces élèves ukrainiens sur leurs camarades français.

Mais comment la France, l’un des pays les plus réputés au monde pour sa recherche, a-t-elle pu tomber aussi bas? « Attention, on ne peut parler de baisse de niveau en ce qui concerne les spécialistes les plus pointus, relativise Emmanuel Trélat. L’Ecole normale supérieure ou Polytechnique comptent toujours de brillants éléments et je ne m’attends pas à un décrochage sur le terrain de la recherche internationale dans les prochaines années. » Mais les Cédric Villani et autres nombreux médaillés Fields formeraient bel et bien l’arbre qui cache la forêt. C’est d’ailleurs là que se situe l’écueil essentiel : en France, les maths ont toujours été associées à l’excellence et à la sélection. « Dans ce domaine, le monde se sépare en deux camps: les excellents et les mauvais. Comme s’il ne pouvait pas y avoir de juste milieu », déplorent en chœur les spécialistes. Un constat, dramatique, notamment chez les filles, plus sujettes à raccrocher compas et rapporteurs parmanque de confiance en leurs capacités. La réforme de Jean-Michel Blanquer a amplifié ce phénomène: en 2021, sociales y ont recours. « Etudier la manière dont l’information circule sur les réseaux fait appel à la théorie des graphes. Celle-ci est utilisée aussi bien par les médias quepar les influenceurs », explique Emmanuel Trélat, directeur du laboratoire Jacques Louis-Lions à la Sorbonne. Bref, impossible de faire l’impasse sur les maths. Pourtant, on n’a jamais autant manqué de spécialistes.

Une conséquence, entre autres, duchangement de profil de nos dirigeants. « Jusqu’au président Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, la France était pilotée par des ingénieurs ou des polytechniciens. Or, depuis les années 1980, les énarques et les juristes ont peu à peu pris le pouvoir », constate l’historien Pierre Vermeren. « Tout cela a contribué à la désindustrialisation du pays et a favorisé les réformes qui affaiblissent le niveau scientifique des élèves comme celle, toute récente, du lycée. Car ceux qui nous dirigent ne voient plus l’intérêt de la chose », insiste-t-il. Selon le spécialiste, Sciences po a détrôné Centrale au sein de la bourgeoisie française. « Plus la peine de faire des maths pensent-ils... à tort! » s’exclame-t-il. Dominique Reynié, candidat malheureux à la présidence de Sciences pooù il enseigne, avait intégré cette urgencedans son programme de campagne. « Il est impossible aujourd’hui de concevoir la formation des élites sans intégrer une formation, solide et obligatoire en mathématiques mais aussi en sciences de la viecomme la biologie », argumente-t-il.

Souvent présentées comme étant un langage universel, les mathématiques seraient également d’un grand secours...dans le monde de la diplomatie. « Au sortir d’un conflit, lorsqu’il s’agit de renouer des relations avec un autre pays, ce sont bien souvent des mathématiciens, ou du moins des scientifiques, que l’on envoie », raconte Emmanuel Trélat. Qui mieux qu’eux ou développer des programmes de recherche internationaux, des encadrements communs de thèses, des échanges d’étudiants? Les maths ont bel et bien le pouvoir de dépasser la barrière de la langue, commel’accueil d’élèves ukrainiens en France, depuis le début de la guerre, l’a une fois deplus démontré. Inutile d’avoir recours à un vocabulaire très développé pour plancher sur des fractions ou résoudre des équations. Nombreux sont d’ailleurs les enseignants à vanter, ces derniers temps, l’avance de ces élèves ukrainiens sur leurs camarades français.

Mais comment la France, l’un des pays les plus réputés au monde pour sa recherche, a-t-elle pu tomber aussi bas? « Attention, on ne peut parler de baisse de niveau en ce qui concerne les spécialistes les plus pointus, relativise Emmanuel Trélat. L’Ecole normale supérieure ou Polytechnique comptent toujours de brillants éléments et je ne m’attends pas à un décrochage sur le terrain de la recherche internationale dans les prochaines années. » Mais les Cédric Villani et autres nombreux médaillés Fields formeraient bel et bien l’arbre qui cache la forêt. C’est d’ailleurs là que se situe l’écueil essentiel: en France, les maths ont toujours été ssociées à l’excellence et à la sélection. « Dans ce domaine, le monde se sépare en deux camps: les excellents et les mauvais.Comme s’il ne pouvait pas y avoir de juste milieu », déplorent en chœur les spécialistes. Un constat, dramatique, notamment chez les filles, plus sujettes à raccrocher compas et rapporteurs par manque de confiance en leurs capacités.


La réforme de Jean-Michel Blanquer a amplifié ce phénomène : en 2021,seulement 45,8 % des élèves filles suivaient encore un enseignement en mathématiques en classe de terminale, par lebiais d’une spécialité ou d’une option.Contre 85 % avant la réforme du bac. Au delà de l’incidence sur leurs ambitions et leurs trajectoires personnelles, la faible représentation des femmes dans les secteurs scientifiques peut avoir des conséquences insoupçonnées. Amel Kefif, directrice générale de l’association Elles bougent, évoque l’exemple de cette société ayant développé un système de reconnaissance faciale grâce à l’intelligence artificielle: « On sait que l’IA se nourrit de ce qu’on lui présente au départ. Or, élaboré par des hommes de même  catégorie d’âge et de couleur, cet outil ne reconnaissait pas, ou difficilement, les femmes, les personnes noires ou porteuses de handicap. » En se rendant dans les écoles, les collèges et les lycées,les« marraines » de son association,venues de tous horizons, tentent de désacraliser cette matière afin de permettre aux élèves de mieux l’apprivoiser. « On leur fait comprendre que le fait d’avoir ne serait-ce que des bases en maths leur permettra d’ouvrir lechamp des possibles en matière d’orientation et pourra aussi être une force plus tard,dans le cadre d’une reconversion par exemple », poursuit-elle.

L’enjeu n’est pas uniquement professionnel puisque les maths font évidemment partie de notre quotidien. Ainsi, au plus fort de la crise sanitaire, on entendait beaucoup parler de « croissance exponentielle ». « Une notion autrefois abordée dans les programmes, même dans ceux des anciennes filières ES ou L. Aujourd’hui, cette notion-là ne fait pluspartie du bagage commun des élèves »,décrypte Véronique Maume-Deschamps,directrice de l’Agence pour les mathématiques en interaction avec les entreprises et la société.« Hélas, aujourd’hui, combiend’élèves ne savent plus faire de règle de trois... Pardon, il faut désormais dire“appliquer une règle de proportionnalité”! » ironise Marc Rumeau. « A quoi sert dechanger lenom de ce principe ancestral si les élèves ne savent même plus de quoion parle? » insiste-t-il. Au même titre quela calculette a remplacé le calcul de tête, certaines notions de base sont passées aux oubliettes. Ce qui peut se révéler problématique lorsqu’il s’agit de gérer son compte en banque, de calculer un prêt, de traduire un pourcentage de réduction en période de soldes...voire de voter! « Certes, on peut vivre sans connaître le montant du budget de l’Etat. Mais si on ne sait pas faire la différence entre 10 et 100 milliards, on aura du mal en tant que citoyen à évaluer un programme de candidat », estime Pierre Vermeren. « La promesse d’émancipation que porte la République passenécessairement par les sciences, la maîtrise du calcul et des ordres de grandeur », poursuit l’historien.

Selon Gilles Haéri, à la fois diplômé de Centrale Paris et agrégé de philosophie, la grande force des matheux est leur rapport à la vérité: « Résoudre un problème de mathématiques permet d’expérimenter le fait qu’il existe une loi, des règles, une vérité extérieure à ma subjectivité qui s’impose à moi. Je ne peux pas écrire ou raconter n’importe quoi, je suis obligé de me soumettre à une vérité et au jugement des autres. En mathématiques, on ne peut pas tricher. » A l’heure où l’on baigne dans un océan de contre-vérités, les maths et la science en général font figure de bouées de sauvetage. « Elles peuvent servir d’anti dotes à des jeunes tentés de défendre l’idée que la terre est plate sous prétexte que “ça change” ou que “c’est original” », poursuit l’éditeur qui va jusqu’à louer le caractère universel des mathématiques :« Elles sont aussi une école de l’égalité, un domaine où les particularités culturelles, psychologiques, religieuses sont abolies. Tout le monde est égal devant un problème mathématique. »

La gymnastique d’esprit que suscite la discipline va même jusqu’à faciliter lesrelations sociales. Selon David Bessis, auteur du livre Mathematica. Une aventure au cœur de nous-mêmes (Seuil, 2022), les mathématiques permettent notamment d’apprendre àgérer lacontradiction. « Quand on se confronte aux maths, on se cogne, on se trompe, ça fait mal. Mais si on apprend à les maîtriser, elles nous rendent plus fort. Alors que si on se vexe, on se décourage, on perd vraiment une opportunité de s’améliorer », explique-t-il, établissant une analogie avec la planche à voile: « Au début vous vous cassez la figure car vous ne mettez pas les pieds au bon endroit. A force de persévérance, vous trouvez la solution et réussissez à acquérir ce qui deviendra des automatismes. »

Aux yeux du spécialiste, les mathématiques ressemblent à un gigantesque jeu de construction partagé par le monde entier. Présentée comme ça, la discipline devient tout de suite plus attrayante. Un bon début d’hypothèse pour populariser et dédiaboliser les maths, mêmesi bien d’autres pistes restent à exploiter afin de leur redonner toute la place qu’elles méritent.