Former French Culture Minister Audrey Azoulay was elected on Friday, October 13, by the UNESCO executive board to serve as the agency’s next chief. While the United Nation’s cultural arm has a world reputation for designating World Heritage Sites and preserving our collective history, recently it has been criticized for becoming too political and Ms. Azoulay will face the task of repairing its damaged reputation.
The weeklong voting process, which narrowed nine candidates down to a final vote between Ms. Azoulay and Qatari diplomat Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari was overshadowed by Middle East tensions and the withdrawal of the United States and Israel from the organization. Although Ms. Azoulay will have to be confirmed at UNESCO’s general conference next month by its 195 members, the move is largely seen as a formality. She won last week’s executive board vote 30-28. The unexpected result came after a long campaign by many Middle East members for an Arab leader. Since its founding in 1946, none of UNESCO’s 10 director generals has been from an Arab country.
However, the sheer number of candidates, 4 of which were from the Middle East, exacerbated tensions within the region and made the unified backing of a single nominee impossible. Al Jazeera, which is funded by the Qatari government, reported that many in Qatar believed that the country’s rivals, Saudi Arabia and Egypt among others, mobilized to block the Qatari candidate during his final vote against Ms. Azoulay. While she began the week less favored than Mr. al-Kawari, she picked up support as the process drew on and won the semifinal runoff vote against Egyptian candidate Moushira Khattab.
Ms. Azoulay, the daughter of an adviser to King Mohammed VI of Morocco, served as French Culture Minister from 2016-2017. She previously held high-level positions at the National Center of Cinematography and the Moving Image, an agency of the French Ministry of Culture. She was born in Paris and studied at Scienes Po and the Ecole nationale d’administration (ENA). During her candidacy, she was criticized by some member states that didn’t approve of France seeking leadership of an agency that is already headquartered in Paris. Azoulay is the second French chief of the agency following René Maheu, who led the group from 1959-1974.
The day before the vote, the United States announced that it was withdrawing from UNESCO, citing the agency’s anti-Israeli bias. Israel followed suit shortly after. In addition to concerns of the organization’s increasing politicization — member states have been using the group to decide contested cultural claims and the agency accepted Palestine as a member state in 2011, giving the region legitimacy — Azoulay will also have to manage its shortage of funding. The United States’ annual funds to the organization, which it has withheld since 2011, was 22 percent of the agency’s budget. Other countries have also threatened to withhold their dues because of UNESCO’s controversial decisions, Japan warning it would do so after the organization added documents pertaining to the Nanjing Massacre to its Memory of the World register.