Ex-French culture minister to head UNESCO
French former Culture Minister Audrey Azoulay was named to head the U.N.’s embattled cultural agency Friday, beating her Qatari rival after a politically charged contest clouded by Gulf tensions and accusations of anti-Israel bias.
Azoulay, 49, came from behind after six rounds of voting to defeat Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari, also a former culture minister, after he failed to pick up support from other Gulf states that are part of an Arab coalition blockading Qatar. The vote was 30 to 28.
The campaign to succeed UNESCO’s outgoing chief Irina Bokova was overshadowed by Washington’s announcement Thursday that it planned to withdraw from the Paris-based body after years of tensions over decisions seen as critical of Israel. Israel itself announced shortly afterwards that it would follow suit.
Azoulay, who is Jewish of Moroccan origin, will face the difficult task of trying to persuade the United States and Israel to remain as members, as well as tackling the allegations of anti-Israel bias.
Just as daunting will be her job of reforming the agency struggling under the weight of a bureaucracy that has become unwieldy over the seven decades since its foundation.
French President Emmanuel Macron hailed her victory on Twitter, saying: “France will continue to fight for science, education and culture in the world.”
Speaking to journalists before Friday’s vote, Azoulay said if elected she would “restore the effectiveness and credibility” of UNESCO, which she said was undergoing a “deep political crisis”.
Lebanon’s candidate Vera ElKhoury, who bowed out at the fourth round of voting, told AFP that the power game at play in the race had shown UNESCO members “did not give a damn” about the candidates’ programs.
Azoulay had edged out Egyptian rights activist Moushira Khattab earlier Friday as the main challenger to Al-Kawari, the frontrunner until the final run-off.
Arab states believed the job of director-general of the 195-member organization should go to one of them for the first time, but regional rivalries and the U.S. and Israeli withdrawals undercut their ambitions.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who was in Paris for the vote, “urged all his friends to vote for France” instead of Qatar in the final round, a member of Khattab’s delegation told AFP.
In the face of the Arab divisions, France presented Azoulay as a consensus figure who could mend fences and soothe tensions caused by recent resolutions against Israel.
“Now more than ever UNESCO needs a project ... which restores confidence and overcomes political divisions,” the French Foreign Ministry said in response to the U.S. pullout.
Qatar has generously funded UNESCO in recent years and lobbied intensively for the post, which would have helped bolster its international status at a time when it faces isolation in the Gulf.
UNESCO is best known for producing a list of World Heritage sites including tourist favorites such as the Grand Canyon or Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, but it also runs science, media training and cultural programs internationally. –
Azoulay arrives at the council hall at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris.