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Daniel Cohen, the economist who did not hide in his ivory tower

The jack-of-all-trades economist, mentor of recognized experts abroad, died on August 20. He leaves behind him a decisive legacy for French economists.

By Philippine Robert

With his bubbling spirit, Daniel Cohen marked an entire generation of economists.

DAniel Cohen was one of those beings over whom time seems to have no hold. With his always youthful air, his eternally lively, even twirling mind, the economist was shot through with a constant crackle of ideas. Jack-of-all-trades, he loved his discipline as much as literature, sociology, history or politics, had fun building theories on football or Almodovar’s films, and let these different inspirations infuse his work. .

Then, with generosity and warmth, he turned into a storyteller to share this natural curiosity with others. “A crossroads man”, as described by his friend and Governor of the Banque de France François Villeroy de Galhau, he died on Sunday August 20 at the age of 70, leaving behind him a decisive legacy in the hushed world of French economists.

READ ALSODaniel Cohen: “Individuals cannot form a society on their own”

Born in 1953 in Tunis, Daniel Cohen first attends the benches of the École Normale Supérieure. After earning an aggregation in mathematics in the 1970s, he fell in love with economics. Mastering the equations with perfection, he was never the kind of economist to hide behind the complexity of the models, “a scaffolding that he knew how to make disappear by transforming the figures into words”, recalls his former student Augustin Landier, professor at HEC.

“But he was able to bring the solidity of mathematics to a left-wing economic tradition,” underlines Emmanuelle Auriol, professor at the Toulouse School of Economics. Popularizer, but without ever sacrificing substance, he has never ceased to make his discipline accessible to as many people as possible, and has published a multitude of works in which he analyzes the changes in contemporary capitalism.

Pragmatic and open-minded

“He was not one of those economists who hide in their ivory tower and he allowed the general public to better understand the economy,” says François Villeroy de Galhau. In his latest book, Homo numericus: the coming “civilization” (ed. Albin Michel), Daniel Cohen analyzed the way in which the digital revolution is upsetting humanity. But questions of globalization, work or populism also run through his work. With always a questioning taking the place of a common thread in the middle of this abundant thought: how does postmodern society manage to create both so much wealth and so much inequality?

READ ALSOThe French and the taboo of moneyAlthough Daniel Cohen was able to deal with a large number of subjects, he was first and foremost a great specialist in sovereign debt, whose academic work was recognized by his peers. In particular, he worked on reducing that of heavily indebted poor countries and closely followed the Greek case, as an adviser to the Lazard bank. “We had passionate debates: we did not agree on the seriousness of this debt, but he knew how to welcome the contradiction”, recalls Pierre Moscovici, at the time European Commissioner.

“He refused to let himself be locked into a doxa, he was pragmatic and open-minded,” adds Jean-Olivier Hairault, director of the Paris PSE-School of Economics. Travel companion of the Socialist Party, alongside Martine Aubry, François Hollande or Benoît Hamon, he did not hesitate to exchange with Bruno Le Maire. And even when his political camp will criticize his contract at Lazard, he will not give up his freedom.

Generation Cohen

Daniel Cohen was also a mentor, giving birth to vocations and bursting out talents. Among his former students, Esther Duflo, Nobel Prize in Economics in 2019, but also Thomas Piketty, Gabriel Zucman, Emmanuel Saez and Julia Cagé. “At Normale, he won over a lot of students who were looking for themselves thanks to his permanent enthusiasm and his generosity,” recalls Augustin Landier. It pushes them to broaden their horizons, to go and spend time abroad, to write for an Anglo-Saxon audience.

Thanks to him, a whole generation is internationally recognized. With Thomas Piketty, he also created, in 2006, the Paris School of Economics (PSE), which he imagines as a showcase for a certain French economic research, that crossed by the multidisciplinarity dear to his heart. According to the RePec ranking, the school ranks fifth in the world for economics departments. A success.

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